Meditation: An antidote to our woes?

Pondering the usefulness of meditation in the modern world

A silhouette of a female-presenting figure sitting in the lotus position. Artwork by Olivia Allanson

For the uninitiated, which is the overwhelming global majority, the idea of taking a few minutes out of their busy lives to “do nothing” at all seems like an uneconomical use of time, if not utterly pointless. For its burgeoning disciples, however — those who prefer to start their day with their back upright against a chair, eyes closed, merely paying attention to their thoughts and sensations — “doing nothing” is an indispensable exercise.

It is not difficult to explain why meditation has only recently begun to amass a following in the West. Since emerging in India around 400 B.C.E and promptly spreading to China, the practice of meditation has remained substantially confined to the religious and demographic context from which it sprung. After being treated to intellectual flirtation during the Enlightenment, kindled by Western intrigue in the 1960s, the phenomenon has  exploded in the last decade.

This surging popularity has been generated and seized upon by a motley crew of individuals and organisations keen to reap its therapeutic and financial benefits. In the first camp are those seduced by meditation’s practical utility: lifestyle addicts, sufferers of anxiety and depression, companies trying to combat stress levels in the workplace. Schools, government organisations and even the military, are recent additions. In the second, the “meditation industry”: paid courses, app developers and anyone else making a profit from selling a meditation related product or service. According to a report in 2015 by IBISWorld, the American meditation industry (excluding yoga and pilates) is worth around USD $1b. Apps providing guided meditation courses also attract a huge and growing consumer-base. ‘Headspace’, one of the most well-known, soared from 20.5m to 40m downloads in 2018 and boasts over 1m paid subscribers.

Although westernised forms of meditation, such as yoga and mindfulness, are derivatives of Hindu and Buddhist practices, they are far removed from their rich religious and cultural roots; stripped down and secularised to be rendered consumable for capitalist society. On one view, severing faith from meditation and imbuing it with a rational, scientific basis, is a necessary step towards universalising the practice so that its benefits are more widely accessible. To the cynic, however, the mindfulness movement is little more than a fad, amounting to “white-washing” and cultural appropriation.

Perhaps the most scathing critics are those wielding the commodification argument. Here, the assertion is not just that Eastern culture has been conveniently repackaged and remarketed to forward the bottom line of meditation companies. Rather, they claim meditation has, under the guise of rationalism, been wrenched from its ethical and religious backbone and fully co-opted by capitalism. In Buddhism, the practice of meditation itself is similar to that of modern “mindfulness”, both in terms of purpose and method. The basic premise is that, by paying close attention to thoughts and sensations as they arise in consciousness, the subject develops a sense of awareness and peace. And yet, this is arguably the extent of the similarities. Some of the central tenets of Buddhism (which meditation is supposed to conduce) are the renunciation of ego, greed and desire. Mindfulness abandoned these religious virtues: the void filled by capitalist antipodes, egotism and individualism. Instead of encouraging the participant to transcend the self, and furnishing them with the virtues to create a better world, mindfulness functions as a temporary antidote to the pressures of everyday life. Like the self-help industry, it is the perfect compliment to capitalism, anaesthetising workers to the stress and banality of wage-labour so that they’re able to work longer, more efficiently and without complaint. Headspace even contains a course of guided meditations under the label of “productivity”, hardly a notion that could be squared with profound spiritual enlightenment. What’s more, the evidence seems to suggest that if work-output is what you’re looking for, meditation is the practice for you. American entrepreneur and investor, Tim Ferriss (a pretty well rounded capitalist himself), interviewed 140 industry leaders and found that the vast majority of them meditated. The cynics, thus, would agree that meditation is an antidote to our woes — an antidote which addresses the symptoms, rather than the systemic causes, of the problem.  

So, should we accept these critiques wholeheartedly, or is there something positive that meditation can offer us? In my opinion, strongly influenced by my own experience of meditating consistently over the past year, there absolutely are.

That is not to say that there is not an element of truth to the cynics’ claims, but to acknowledge that they do not represent the complete truth. For one thing, they are cynics, defined as such for their proclivity to take contrarian stances. Indeed, some of the staunchest opponents of mindfulness, like notorious Slovenian Philosopher Slavoj Zizek, are well known for dismissing most facets of modern culture (Zizek’s favourite target is political correctness) as malignant creatures of capitalism.

But the fact is, not all those who meditate are rapacious capitalists looking to enhance their work ethic. Many, myself included, are simply looking to find a way of coping with anxiety, or achieving the mental clarity necessary to be better to others. I do not doubt that if the cynics took some time out of their brooding to properly attempt meditation, they too would profit. While some courses, particularly those offered by big corporations to their employees, emphasise productivity, some emphasise compassion. For example, my go-to-app (and one of the most popular), “Waking up with Sam Harris”, incorporates a Buddhist practice called Mettā, which involves deliberately wishing goodwill upon others.

Meditation is not, and nor does it promise to be, the antidote to society’s ills. Only critical thought and political action can rectify capitalistic machinations. But if we can harness meditation’s benefits, while remaining vigilant of capitalism’s invidious hand, we will be all the better for it.