What’s After Neoliberal Meditation?
Moving beyond neoliberal individualism towards digitized cultures of interdependence & democratized liberation from antiquated ways of living.
Every morning I wake up to the kind of decision that might look small on the surface, but for which that visible surface is just the tip of an enormity that lies beneath. Do I roll out of bed and sit on my meditation cushion, or just pour the coffee and get right to work on whatever essay is open on my computer? I only have a few hours before work - the kind that pays the rent & buys groceries - the onset of which swallows the day into labor I’d rather not be doing.
Lurking beneath my morning decision is a question: what’s really going to change my life?
This underlying question, more of a yearning, ties my groggy indecision to a cultural conflict between the individualism of neoliberal capitalism and the interdependence of contemplative ethics that may come to define the early 21st century.
Is diligent meditation, no matter the cultural circumstances, sufficient to transform a life that feels trapped in meaningless drudgery into one that bathes in the splendors and suchness of the present moment? Are my anxieties, my dissatisfactions with life as I know it, merely a result of my inability to pay attention, to really attend and commune with the present?
Or, might my dissatisfied yearnings, my anxieties and neuroses, arise directly from my insecure access to the means for survival and basic participation in society today? What kind of unknown varieties of experience might stable access to healthcare, shelter, food, and leisure time afford?
From this angle, maybe it’s more prudent, a more pragmatic hope for liberation in modern society, that I invest every spare minute I have in pursuit of ‘making it’ in some fashion. Certainly not sitting down for 30 minutes in the morning and breathing. Here, ‘making it’ is finding a way to get sufficiently paid for doing things I’d do even if I were not getting paid. This would dispense with the need for uninteresting labor that eats most of my waking hours. Such is the capitalist fantasy of liberation.
When I say I want to change my life, I mean I want to rediscover and nurture a sense of excitement about the inscrutable fact that I am alive, that we’re all here, the infinite variations of ways we can all live as a curious and learning species startled by our own presence. But I cannot shake the conviction that this calls for more than meditation. Our lusterless systems of modern schooling, lifetimes of uninteresting work, concentrations of wealth and capital flowing ever-upwards - these will not change unless something is done. Without structural change, can we reasonably expect the experience of what it’s like to be human to change?
Such is that stage upon which Ronald Purser’s new book, McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Become the New Capitalist Spirituality, critiques the idea that deeply realized contemplative ethics and neoliberal capitalism can coexist. Digitized globalization is shrinking the world, and there’s no longer enough space for neoliberal capitalism and meditation to dodge each other. Any meditation practice that does not seek to revolutionize and reconstitute our defining neoliberal cultural institutions is not, frankly, meditation in full.
For Purser, McMindfulness is the neoliberal regurgitation of meditation. On offer everywhere from the military to corporate seminars, what began as a method, a narrow tool for helping hospital patients deal with pain and anxiety inflated into a self-branded full re-presentation of the dharma - Buddha’s teachings.
This reduction of meditation into mindfulness is a neutered relative of what the Buddha taught, ill-equipped to actualize what Manu Bazzano calls “the sheer magnitude of the Dharma.”
But that’s not the point.
In many serious contemplative circles, this critique is old news. The book is a passionate attempt to bridge the gap between mainstream discourse and the question many adepts are now asking themselves: what’s next, and how might we get there?
Can we imagine a cultural framework suitable to both the magnitude of the dharma and the realities of 7.4 billion hungry humans inhabiting the same floating rock, with democratic and equitable access to innovations of the digitized 21st century landscape? What might emerge from the exacerbated tensions between neoliberalism’s teaching of individualism and meditation’s teaching of interdependence? Is it possible to align the incentives of meditation practice with economic institutions?
These are the sorts of questions the project of culturing consciousness now faces. They’re difficult, but perhaps worse, they’re political. They’re questions of policy just as much as questions of practice.
The guiding idea behind Purser’s critique, and my own suspicion that changing my life will require more than meditation, is that the mind is not fundamentally ‘prior’ to its exterior circumstances. Rather, the distinction between interior and exterior is porous and misleading. Consciousness, I suspect, is fundamentally constituted by its surrounding cultural dynamics.
If reducing the unnecessary suffering of all sentient beings and culturing the capacity for wisdom, compassion, & zest are taken as the contemplative mission statement, then it is no longer adequate for contemplatives to detach from the sociocultural context that defines modern life.
The digital age is ushering in a new degree of interdependence, where modern culture is a globally enveloping phenomenon, like a dust storm eating the world. Detachment from these conditions is irresponsible. The work must now take place inside the pandemonium.
What’s Wrong with Neoliberalism?
To pit meditation and neoliberalism against each other presumes that neoliberalism cannot be the defining ideology of a culture intent upon deconstructing suffering and democratizing wisdom, compassion, and zest.
Moving beyond neoliberalism presumes a consensus rejection of neoliberalism - a consensus that I’m not sure yet exists. Neoliberalism retains plenty of support in conservative and progressive circles alike. It was founded on the theories of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig Von Mises in the 30’s, went into hiding during FDR’s social programs and Keynesian spending, resurged with the policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 80's, and is now promulgated by liberal icons like Bill Gates, Steven Pinker, Max Roser of the wonderful Our World in Data, and even, I think, the venerated Tyler Cowen.
So, what is neoliberalism?
In brief, neoliberalism is a socioeconomic ideology - a set of policies, attitudes, and beliefs - characterized by an uncompromising faith in free markets, competition, and broad-spectrum deregulation. Neoliberalism believes that free markets produce more desirable outcomes in all facets of human life than human planning would (something neoliberalism brands “intervention”, if this indicates its distaste for human hands meddling in the ‘natural state’ of the economy).
But Marshall McLuhan, and Felix Guattari after him, articulated an interconnectedness between individual consciousness and its larger socioeconomic, technologic, and material realities that suggests neoliberalism is far more than a framework for policy. Neoliberalism instills a framework for subjectivity, for the ebb and flow of consciousness and our experience of what it’s like to exist.
24 years apart, McLuhan and Guattari suggest the same idea. The nature and composition of interior experience - what it feels like to exist, who and what we consider ourselves to be - are not separate from exterior systems”
“My work is designed for the pragmatic purpose of trying to understand our technological environment and its psychic and social consequences.” (McLuhan, 1968)
“Without modifications to the social and material environment, there can be no change in mentalities. Here, we are in the presence of a circle that leads me to postulate the necessity of founding an ‘ecosophy’ that would link environmental ecology to social ecology and to mental ecology.” (Guattari, 1992)
Digging deeper into the critical theory of neoliberalism, Purser draws from Michel Foucault’s work on governmentality and the neoliberal turn, to write: “neoliberal institutions exercise micro-levels of power, reformulating what it means to be a person, self, and identity.” McLuhan and Guattari’s point is that all socioeconomic institutions similarly reformulate these most intimate aspects of our psyches. But a subordination of subjective experience to objective metrics renders neoliberalism blind to its psychic consequences. Freedom is considered no more than skin deep.
For example, one psychic consequence of the neoliberal economic environment is a particularly contentious form of individualism that teaches: in market organized societies, you get what deserve. Goerge Monbiot writes in The Guardian:
“We internalise and reproduce its creeds. The rich persuade themselves that they acquired their wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages - such as education, inheritance and class - that may have helped to secure it. The poor begin to blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances.”
This is what’s behind a term Purser frequently uses to chide the neoliberal mindfulness movement: privatization. Writing simultaneously about mindfulness and neoliberalism, Purser laments:
“Instead of encouraging radical action, it says the causes of suffering are disproportionately inside us, not in the political and economic frameworks that shape how we live…Instead of setting practitioners free, it helps them adjust to the very conditions that caused their problems.”
Privatization is to disproportionately shift the responsibility for mental states, specifically negative ones like stress, anxiety, and despair, onto individuals. This severs our mental ecologies from the wider social and cultural ecologies that contextualize and co-create them.
At its heart, this privatization drives a core conflict between neoliberal and contemplative ethics.
Neoliberalism, properly understood, is a comprehensive response to the perennial human question of how we ought to live. It states that we should live in perfect and unregulated competition with one another, an environment through which, proponents believe, the best possible outcomes for all participants naturally emerge.
This belief is what impels French sociologist Pierre Bourdieau to call neoliberalism: “A program for destroying collective structures which may impede the pure market logic.”
Neoliberalism’s rejection of collective structures makes sense if we remember its historical context. It arose at a moment when its intellectual fathers and the country at large were terrified of communism, determined to move as far from it as possible. Today, the same vague fears haunt public discourse, simply swapping out “communism” for “socialism”.
Neoliberalism and meditation share the same stated goal: freedom. But neoliberalism believes we will find freedom only through radical individualism, by liberating ourselves from inefficient government interventions, and freely pursuing our own individual self-interests. Meditation teaches we will find freedom only in radical togetherness, when the very concept of ‘self’ is deconstructed to reveal us all as one single entity that will thrive, or perish, as one.
Re-Culturing the Coming World
So, what’s next? Purser’s critique culminates in a suggestion for something new - a new understanding of the interplay between interior and exterior, and new cultural institutions built to nourish the fluidity between them:
“Total liberation requires a new praxis…one that works on the dialectic between self and society, between an interior search for wellbeing and changing socioeconomic structures.”
Purser’s critique is more of an invitation to pull our heads out of the ground and see what’s going on than a blueprint for next steps. With our imaginations kindled, our sights raised, what visions are emerging?
A diversity of voices are beginning to come forward and offer fragments of what might be assembled into a loosely held schema for a new generation of cultural institutions, human experiences, and modes of living with the complexities, and possibilities, of the 21st century.
What follows is an incomplete tour through a few of these visionary, but actionable fragments. They share a common purpose: A democratized liberation from antiquated and dampening ways of living, via possibilities newly available in the 21st century.
As neoliberal capitalism expands across the globe, it spreads a singular kind of consciousness. The consciousness’ of all humans are increasingly emerging from the same cultural milieu, and the greatest loss with such mass-produced consciousness is the diversity of our collective imagination.
Increasingly, we have what education theorist Zak Stein calls a singular world-system:
“A world-system is defined in terms of a geographical region that contains a singular division of labor, coherent political and bureaucratic apparatuses, and a distinct organization of the world-ecology. World-systems co-evolve with cultures, and there is (or has been at least since the 1970’s) a truly planetary culture. Or better: a global ideology broadcast from a polycentric capitalist world-system touching every corner of the Earth.”
A coherent world-system is not inherently problematic, but the culture (and thus consciousness) spreading by the neoliberal capitalist world-system has fierce critics. Stein, whose work in education we will turn to shortly, writes:
“Since the 1980’s the American mass-schooling mode has expanded. It has been dumbing-down culture, burdening students with billions of dollars of personal debt, and limiting our collective sense of what is possible economically, ethically, and personally.”
From a more distinctly Marxist perspective, The Guardian columnist Stuart Jeffries writes that “…the industrial revolution changed production, consumption, culture and thereby what it was to be human.”
Jeffries contends that it was mass-production that “made the world modern”, especially as it pertained to the zombified humans it fashioned:
“Weber’s iron age of capitalism had subdued humans during working hours; now the culture industry subdued them at their leisure - changing them increasingly from productive beings to consumers, from the Marxist dream of creatively vital humans to stupefied moviegoers all giggling at the same thing.”
Cultural homogenization runs counter to the logic of evolution. Evolution thrives off the diversity of mutations occurring. The larger the pool of distinct mutations, the greater the likelihood an advantageous adaptation may emerge.
So to break from the mass-production of consciousness and nurture a culture that does not standardize subjectivity, what is needed is a sort of gymnastics for consciousness. A stretching of our atrophied capacities. Such a project requires breaking from habituated patterns of thinking, if for no other reason than to show us what’s possible.
Moving beyond standardized patterns of thinking will require routinized - dare I say, ritualized - explorations into altered states of consciousness. Yes, psychedelics, made available in safe and supportive environments, play a role here. But so, too, might new virtual-reality technologies, meditation, or new neurotechnologies, as philosopher, meditator, and neuroscientist Thomas Metzinger writes:
“Developing a consciousness culture will mean…exploring the space of altered states of consciousness in ways from which we can all profit. The interplay of virtual-reality technology, new psychoactive substances, ancient psychological techniques such as meditation, and future neurotechnology will introduce us to a universe of self-exploration barely imaginable today.” (Ego Tunnel p. 239)
New cultural institutions, like late-night public libraries, can offer a nearly psychedelic alteration of consciousness in the new patterns of thinking they might afford.
Three Phase Shifts
Another node along the frontier of revitalized cultural schemas is Daniel Schmachtenberger. In a fireside talk, he outlines three “phase shifts” - social systems, infrastructure, and memetic/ideology - that might carry us into a more vitalized future.
Transcribed at length, the shifts are:
“At the level of social systems, primarily economics, the key shift…is a moving from a differential advantage economy, defined by private ownership, valuation based in scarcity, and differential advantage, to an economic system that is defined by making sure that the incentive of every agent and the wellbeing of every other agent in the commons is perfectly aligned with no externality. Meaning that we actually understand it’s an interconnected system, we identify all the externalities and internalize them, so the system’s actually defined by systemic advantage for the whole. This is not communism, or socialism, or capitalism, it’s something that was not possible before…but it is how your body works. Where none of the cells are advantaging themselves at the expense of the other. They’re doing what’s best for them, what’s best for the whole symbiotically at the same time.”
“…At the level of infrastructure and the built world, we’re moving from a linear materials economy, where we extract from the earth at ever-growing rates unsustainably from finite resources and turn them into trash, to a closed-loop materials economy where the trash is the new stuff, we stop extracting from the earth, stop producing waste, and we actually have a post-growth, negative entropy, closed-loop materials economy, where we can live ongoingly at progressively higher and higher quality of life sustainably with the biosphere…”
“The superstructure, the memetic shift, is this awareness of all of us as facets of one integrated self-evolving reality, where the wellbeing of everyone, the wellbeing of the commons, are not meaningfully calculable separate from each other.”
The best survey of Schmachtenberger’s work I’ve found is his serious of interviews on the Future Thinkers Podcast.
If philosophy is the undying inquiry into how we might live well, then American philosopher John Dewey sets the entire field as an essentially educational project:
“All the problems of philosophy are encapsulated in the problem of education.”
Following Dewey, Zak Stein considers our ability to enact the three phase shifts laid out by Schmachtenberger an essentially educational task:
“…the years between 2000 and 2050 represent a critical turning point in the history of humanity and the planet…I argue that fundamental transformations of our social structures (economies and institutions), ecosystems (biosphere and agriculture), and consciousness (culture and identity) are upon us. These require a fundamentally new approach to education that entails the end of what we have known as schooling.”
We know the human brain forms most of its neural pathways, its general architecture in its first 3-5 years, rendering education in early childhood critically important. But the latest research finds that we’re still in processes of significant maturation and change through the age of 25.
The environments, information, and dynamics were exposed to in these formative years lay the groundwork for what kinds of humans we might become.
This is the scope education, writes Stein. It’s where we create the conditions for human becoming, where the possibilities for socioeconomic life, for the various ways we might organize ourselves as a species, incubate. Education is where the seeds of possibility are sown:
“Groups can change society by establishing alternate modes of education; new modes of education shape the future of all political and economic life because they involve the creation of a new kind of human.”
Like Purser’s concern over neoliberal political agendas usurping the practice of mindfulness, Stein finds similar confrontation between neoliberalism and the variety of education that might set the conditions for better lives:
“The educational resources needed to enable maturity and autonomy are becoming increasingly scarce due to the continued push of neoliberal and neoconservative political agendas.”
His recent book, Education in a Time Between Worlds, is his manifesto of education reform, the entirety of which I cannot recommend enough. But to give a sliver of his vision, I’ll reproduce a fragment of his thought experiment for the possible futures of education.
He imagines a literal renovation of schools today. The buildings that all-too-closely resemble industrial factories can be retrofitted into community centers that serve as nodes along a decentralized network of education hubs, each staffed by what Stein calls “citizen-teacher-scientists”, generously funded through a collective valuation of education as the foundational investment for a better world, and enabled by cutting-edge technology:
“Our great school systems need to be repurposed and redesigned, transformed into unprecedented institutions that are a combination of public libraries, museums, co-working centers, computer labs, and daycares. Funded to the hilt, staffed by citizen-teacher-scientists, these public and privately supported educational hubs would be the local centers of regionally decentralized pop-up classrooms, special interest groups, apprenticeship networks, and college and work preparation counseling…In these places technologies will enable the formation of peer-to-peer networks of students and teachers, of all ages, from all across the local region (or the world through video), and without coercion or compromise. What enables these safe, efficient, hubs of self-organizing educational configurations are fundamentally new kinds of educational technologies, which put almost unlimited knowledge in the palm of every person’s hand.”
The discourse of a “fundamentally new” system resembles Schamchtenberger’s comments on the economic shift, that what might become is nothing like what has ever been. “This is not communism, or socialism, or capitalism, it’s something that was not possible before.” Indeed, Stein’s educational vision is something that was not possible before. We stand on the cusp of actualizing once-impossible horizons.
These new possibilities are what excite and impel the emerging generation of creative visions for a richer culture, and a richer experience of what it’s like to be alive.
This perspective asks us to consider interior experience and exterior systems as parts of what German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk calls an ‘operatively curved space’. In these curved spaces, Sloterdijk suggests that all of our lived experience, each moment is a sort of repetition that turns back upon consciousness to participate in the inevitably human function of self-production. Humans are self-forming animals, Sloterdijk argues:
“…I will demonstrate the autoplastic constitution of the essential human facts. Being human means existing in an operatively curved space in which actions return to affect the actor, works the worker, communications the communicator, thoughts the thinker and feelings the feeler.”
What Purser’s critique of neoliberal mindfulness crystallizes is that these operatively curved spaces extend far beyond mere individuals. They encompass damned-near everything. Culture and consciousness inhabit the same curvature. My early morning decisions and the socioeconomic system I exist within are equally formative agents in the construction of my conscious experience.
This means when I sit up on my crumpled sheets in the morning and wipe my eyes, I cannot meaningfully debate how to change my life without admitting into my groggy mind the entirety of the world-system of which I’m a functioning, sentient node. This is a lot to handle in the morning.
And who doesn’t feel vaulted into that morning-like state of fatigue when the weight of the entire world-system is thrust upon their every move? It’s easier not to think. It’s easier to privatize consciousness, and to believe my own wellbeing, and that of all sentient life, requires no greater action than a deep breath. Such escapism can longer stand.
It is the coordinated action of each sentient node across the emerging network that will reconstitute the operatively curved cultural space in which humans do the business of becoming. The exhaustion such enormities evoke can be combatted only by equal measures of excitement, zest, and creative vision. We find ourselves upon a cusp of new possibilities as never before.
With levity and playfulness, a sense of both duty and detachment, my better mornings are spent in similar spirits as Zak Stein:
“I seek to disclose the reality of universal human emancipation that is always already immanent as a possibility latent in human social structures. The pulse of freedom, as it were, is irrepressible, ubiquitous, and indefatigable.”
I do so knowing full well that I cannot change anything. No individual is adequate to the task. Our best hope for disclosing the immanent possibility for emancipation latent in human social structures lies in a networked, interdependent aggregation of equally hopeless individuals defiantly persisting in their visions for a better world of democratized flourishing.
Then, and only then, might the sensation of my breath feel emancipatory, and my coffee taste like freedom.