Enlightened America: The Radical Potentiality of Zazen Within a Culture Burdened by Mindfulness

“Why do I do zazen? For no purpose at all.”

—”Homeless” Kodo Sawaki
quoted in The Awakening of the West by Stephen Batchelor

An Agent of Change

Amy Jellicoe is a familiar figure. She is a woman who has reached a breaking point within the stress-soaked corporate and social culture she was, until now, successfully navigating. Then she and another executive fuck. Word of their tryst gets around. She is let go from her leadership position as a buyer in Health and Beauty at Abaddonn Industries, a fictional company in the show’s universe. In this (to her mind) sudden dismissal from all she has built, she sees the hand of the executive now experiencing regret (of course he of course  is married and has a kid and can’t afford to lose that). Naturally, she flips out, spectacularly and publically. Before the narrative turn, the screen freezes on her grotesque, mascara streaked face pushing through the doors to an elevator that she is muscling open. Rebirth is imminent. 

When we next see Amy, she’s sitting on a Hawaiian beach recording her thoughts in a notebook. Her voice-over talks of ‘walking out of hell’ and ‘speaking with your true voice.’ “You can wake up to your higher self,” she intones as a montage plays. The camera follows Amy swimming, encountering a sea turtle, grasping a shell from the ocean floor (a fetish she’ll carry with her). Other images pass: meditation circles, positive interactions with her fellow (mostly white) recoverers/retreat-goers. All while her voice over, in calm, wise, knowing tones continues talking about Possibility and Change. Then she’s leaving, to return to her former life, to everything she left behind when she went to this retreat center. Tellingly, in the scenes that follow, she wears bright colors in contrast to the drab blues, blacks and grays of corporate costume. Amy states that she intends to be an “Agent of Change,” and emissary of mindfulness to the toxic corporate world she left behind in L.A. 

Hilarity ensues.

But Amy is more than just a familiar figure in a familiar narrative arc: she represents the neurosis instilled by the modern mindfulness game, namely that to be a more aware and conscientious individual actor within already existing structures is the best - if not only - way to bring about positive systemic and societal change. In the narrative she creates for herself, Amy identifies a lapse in authenticity in herself and larger society, represented in part by the practices of Abbaddon Industries. And at the root of that narrative neurosis is the creation of an artificial lack, but it is also a lack the practices of the mindfulness industry claim to help fill. What ends up happening though is that a practice that carries within itself a radical potentiality for greater change – zazen or meditation – becomes a method by which already alienated individuals can be coaxed and pushed to a physical and mental limit beyond that which already threatens to leave them broken shells. Self-destruction is valorized, though not quite in that language. But, as with the marks of the shape-shifting con man in Melville’s The Confidence Man, Amy, and the rest of us, are being disarmed through the language of scientism and secularization into gladly buying our own alienation and exhaustion as indicators of a transcendent, if still nascent, superhumanity. In essence the Mindfulness Industry performs a sleight of hand, re-territorializing the individual approaching its limit back onto a ‘Horizontal Plane of Having’ while claiming to help them move instead to a ‘Vertical Plane of Being’, to make use of Stephen Batchelor’s categorization

Amy’s journey isn’t one of quixotic tragedy, wherein she remains blinded by her own ego simply for laughs. Obliviousness can only play for laughs for so long before it becomes pathetic to observe. And there is a point where reality muscles its way in and Amy is confronted with the impotency of her approach. It is the goal of this essay to explore how Amy’s self-constructed, self-valorizing narrative about herself, her co-workers and her world mirrors the story the Mindfulness Industry sells and also how zazen can be a radical practice worth rescuing from that industry.   

This Time Will Be Different

“If we can change, the whole world can change for the better.”

—Amy Jellicoe, in voice-over

In the second decade of the 21st Century, Mindfulness Culture has become cliche, derisively referred to as McMindfulness and associated with comfortable middle- to upper-class White Liberals. Retreats to exotic locales like Hawaiian or Caribbean resorts, Italian villas, and Andalusian nature reserves, among others, offer the moderately wealthy a chance to meditate, de-stress, eat healthfully, practice yoga, mingle with Wellness Celebrities and other activities of self-care far away from the crush of life in late capitalism. For a weekend or longer, participants can pretend that even though all of their material desires are otherwise constantly met, they remain unfulfilled and inauthentic and that this is the true crime of life as it is today; for them, Baudrillard was correct regarding their own situation: Reality has been murdered, and they’re here to resurrect authentic existence and save everyone else in the process. They are each Jesus descending into Hell to rescue us, the damned, from our torment.

Indeed, Mindfulness has become synonymous with an enlightened and authentic existence. With happiness. With fulfillment in life and purpose at work. With an end to despair. With being one’s true self in opposition to whatever grotesque failure of a human being you are right now. And this is the problem, that mindful living is treated as something to achieve in contradistinction to the self of the now, the self you know and hate, as an object separate from day-to-day existence discoverable at the end of a journey. Amy was wealthy enough to believably spend several weeks at a Hawaiian recovery facility, manifestly away from everyday life; it was a believable move: serenity is understood to be best discovered away from the city which is often coded as unnatural and soul sucking. But an enlightened existence is not something you can achieve or grasp through escape, it is not fire to be stolen from the gods. Enlightenment is actually nothing at all; by its very no-nature it is not an object or essence to attain. As the Sōtō Zen tradition teaches, Enlightenment has no purpose at all. 

In our culture, an activity having no purpose sounds at first intentionally edgy, but it is actually, if anything, a subtle joke, one of those koans told by a wizened smiling bald older woman or man. It is, to use a Chan Buddhist phrase, The Method of No-Method. But while accepting the inoperativity of something may be one of the hardest parts of contemporary achievement-focused life, even harder to accept is that that inoperativity itself is not, itself, operative. By disavowing one end of a binary, Zen is not affirming the other binary, that would be falling prey to the same construct you were trying to move beyond in the first place. No, zazen is the end of such binaries. Consider that Bartleby, The Scrivener was not secretly starting a movement of Those That Would Prefer Not To, as his boss at one time believed. He was something else entirely, something inconceivable to his own system and cultural mode of thought. The way to move beyond the binary of quotidian and the out-of-reach transcendent is to reject both and then accept the non-dualistic immanence of the present; it is emphatically not to think that it will be different this time, as opposed to all those other times before. It is to not even try again, and also to not try to not-try. 

Take the teachings of Kodo Sawaki. Sawaki was a Japanese monk in the early 20th Century who earned the moniker “Homeless” because he deliberately had no home monastery, choosing instead to wander from place to place, never settling. In The Zen Teachings of Homeless Kodo one teaching is entitled ‘Making Human Beings into a Commodity’. While the ambiguity of that title allows for a possible reading of its content as a How-To Manual, what he is in fact referring to is how our culture of strict comparison and inerrant measurement does nothing more than turn all humans into commodities. The inevitable result then being the certificate economy with which we are all familiar. We are “placed on a conveyor belt as goods to be sold,” as his student Kosho Uchiyama puts it in his commentary. The violence, self-abasement and loneliness that are lightly fictionalized in a character like Amy Jellicoe are only to be expected; they are a feature, not a bug. This is a familiar critique from the Left that is shared, implicitly, with Zen philosophy, but in not promoting a goal beyond the practice of zazen, Zen philosophy goes further. An economy predicated on monetizing an artificial lack will necessarily be in opposition to a practice that eschews goals beyond the practice itself. 

The Mindfulness Industry is complicit in this exploitative economic system. That corporations have started to promote the practice of mindfulness is a massive tell. Any number of articles about mindfulness in prominent internet outlets like Lifehacker or The Huffington Post tout its benefits primarily in terms of productivity to be gained from which will, it goes, naturally follow some measure of happiness. Considering reports on how much economic value is lost due to despair, depression, illness and other deleterious effects of a high-stress culture, it is no surprise that practices that improve mood, productivity and efficiency would be latched on to by businesses. The only surprise is that it took this long to happen. 

The true toxic turn of the promises of the Mindfulness Industry comes from its tying the dubious economic and mental benefits to an even greater benefit: World Peace. As detailed by East Asian Studies and Religious Studies professor Jeff Wilson in his 2014 book, Mindful America, this turn is possible in large part because of the mystification of the Buddhist origins of Mindfulness Meditation. The religious elements are obscured or scooped out while the moral and utopian dimensions are retained and tied into economic and personal well-being. As an example, near the end of the Wilson’s book the reader meets Chade-Meng Tan, an Executive and Engineer at Google, of all places. Not satisfied with merely promoting happiness or engendering contentment (or just plain being satisfied with his money), he confesses in his book Search Inside Yourself that he sees a direct line from Mindfulness to World Peace. He has reached arguably one of the peak positions in this economy only to turn around and dislike what he sees. But the system is not what’s at fault, it seems. The answer, actually, is in being at peace with yourself. 

This is the liberalized moral dimension of Mindfulness Culture, that individual choices can result in worldwide peace. And in fact, it becomes a personal responsibility to make these moral and ethical choices, the thinking goes, because to choose otherwise would mean rejecting such peace. By not having the means, or the time, or the interest in practicing mindfulness meditation, you are making a moral choice, and the wrong one at that. And whatever happens from there is your fault, and yours alone. Except that unlike before the rise of this movement, you are now complicit in not only your own suffering, but the suffering of millions, if not billions.

This is one of the consistent failings of the liberal mindset: that if one were to simply to be aware like ME, you would see that these conclusions are for the best. That there is no alternative but the one we have presented. If Mindfulness Meditation necessarily leads to World Peace, what is the alternative to getting with that program?, the question goes. A double bind has been created and invested within the very concept of Mindfulness. It is not enough to want to just learn de-stressing techniques, it must be part of a higher calling to salvation. Every element of life, even just sitting and breathing, must be some kind of work. Either at personal betterment at the most selfish end, or at total salvation of the soul of humanity at the most altruistic end.

In investigating a practice promoted at the entry level as being a technique for greater happiness or relaxation, the subject – and they are a subject again – is fed back into the very thresher that put them in the situation they find themselves in. 


Wherever You Go, There You Are, or Against Authenticity

“The transcendence of the single word is a secondary one, one that is delivered ready from the factory, a transcendence which is a changeling said to be the lost original”

—Theodor Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity

When Amy Jellicoe meets with HR the day after she has essentially threatened the company with a lawsuit for wrongful termination given her pre-existing diagnosis of bipolar disorder, they meet in a large room where one of the walls is covered with the image of slices of cucumber in midair amidst drops and splashes of clear water. It is no coincidence that Amy came from Health and Beauty and now has her sights set on rebranding/revitalizing another department, one that suffers from negative perception. Before the HR reps enter the room Amy envisions giving a presentation to a large group of executives about how to change the image of the department as being rapturously received by both the corporation and, later, by workers in an upscale grocery-retail setting. The glimpses of the presentation that the viewer gets highlight environmental destruction, presumably at the far-reaching hands of Abaddonn Industries. Amy’s fantastic intention is to wake-up the company to the ills it commits, assuming that the executive class a) is unaware of how its products and practices negatively affect the world-at-large, and b) gives a shit. It’s understandable she would think so: just look at the pure water and fresh cucumbers on the wall. To be authentic would be the coexistence of image and practice; anything else is inauthentic, “where something broken is implied”. 

Authenticity has long since become something that can be sold. Fundamental to Amy’s mistaken fantasy is that Authenticity and personal choices based on the revelation of Interdependence of Existence in our economy would be anything other than another feature for those objects “placed on a conveyor belt as goods to be sold.” The error is that anything is sold at all in the fashion necessitated by the current economy, not that it’s disingenuously portrayed in order to move the most units at the cheapest possible cost. Laboring under such delusions, we are sold our own authenticity again and again. “We can teach you to be yourself,” is the message. This is complete gibberish on its face. Who are you if not yourself? Right now, right this very moment? If the “objective” observer you conjure to judge the self doesn’t like what it sees, it doesn’t stand to reason that what it sees is inauthentic or untrue. Maybe you’re just an asshole. Someone’s gotta be, right? How else could we compare or know who is more authentic, who is better, who is a good person and who is bad?

The ethical and moral implications of interdependence and authenticity, as such, are antithetical to Mindfulness Culture as it is an inherently individualist pursuit in an economic system meant to promote and capitalize on such individualized self-entrepreneurship. That the same individualistic focus of the economy, which is distinct from selfishness, might be at odds with the ground-of-being promoted by Buddhist philosophy doesn’t get much play in Mindfulness Meditation. The focus is on the grateful, most authentic self, to the necessary exclusion of the selfish, inauthentic self. At the base of the thinking that stretches from Meditation to World Peace is the thought that through meditation the practitioner will come to recognize the interdependence of all things and from there they will be enlightened as to what needs to be done, where what that action is is left to vagaries and platitudes. That this line of thinking is disconnected from economic redistribution, from the immediate cessation of destructive environmental practices, from the colonial mindset that moralizes and infantilizes the actions of other nations while downplaying the systemic issues happening outside our front door is the clue that you’re the mark. The current system, but more conscientious, more guilt-wracked, is the unspoken message of the Authentic Self and of Mindfulness Culture at large. If you’re simply more mindful, all your troubles will melt away and you’ll see we’ve built the best of all possible worlds already.  

Post-rehabilitation, Amy returns to her home in Riverside, California, with all the attendant troubles and strife she left behind still waiting for her. But now she’s armed with a meditation practice – “I do that now” she tells her mother – and she’s prepared to reenter life as she left it, the festering sore of an existence that drove her to self-destruct in the first place. If the implication is that this practice as taught will awaken her and as such will affect positive change around her, then that is not the reality as she encounters it. Understandably, the people and situations she left behind are resistant to this ‘new’ Amy. They, of course, remember the ‘old’ Amy of just a few months prior. They too are dependent on Amy for “who” they are, for their sense of self, just as she is/was also dependent on them. Furthermore, there is no implication that none of her co-workers themselves meditate. How many of them practice Yoga, or are devout followers of the Dalai Lama? Is Amy’s assumption that none of them have encountered awareness of their situation? Amy has simply adopted the outlandish, borderline cartoonish persona of “A Mindful Meditator.” She is the bourgeois hippy her mother accuses her of dressing like. Even after a stint in a Hawaiian Rehabilitation Center (may we all be so lucky post-breakdown), she remains Amy Jellicoe, only now her tendencies and personality are driven towards new goals and intentions. The world does not reward real change, however much it may insist otherwise. 

Mindfulness Meditation in a corporate setting is stress reduction, but only for the individual, not for the system. The stress the system demands of its workers is not lessened. The demands of the economy are both external and internal, and as such are largely invisible but for their effects. After a 15, 30, or even 45 min session of guided meditation, the practitioner may find themselves feeling happier. But so what? Is the goal greater endurance? To work harder and longer, with greater focus? Is that what being 10% happier brings, what mindful awareness brings, a greater capacity for suffering?

The world of Enlightened, like the world of America in the 21st Century, is not interested in change. Amy may earnestly desire to be an Agent of Change at Abaddonn Industries – although the likelihood that this intention stems from her wounded narcissism is high – but as the show demonstrates, it takes a lot more than confrontation with the facts of interdependence to change the system, even a little bit. The issue starts with remembering the very question itself: Do you want real change? If in answer to that question, you start with the comforts of the actually existing system as a given, the comforts of the actual existing consumerist society as unproblematic and necessary at their core, real change is not what is desired. What Amy’s vision of change most resembles is letting in mongooses to handle the snake problem, which is only a problem because we released the snakes to handle the mouse problem, which only happened because management fired the janitorial staff because they tried to unionize and no one was cleaning up the break room. Each attempt further compounds the problem by not addressing the very root, which, in Amy’s case, is not that industry is unaware of the the tradeoffs it makes for its profits, but rather that the entire economic structure requires the tradeoffs for its very continued existence and bringing an end to that calculation of scapegoat-based economic systems is an actual existential threat. As such, Amy is not rewarded in the fashion she expects for her attempt at raising awareness. She does not have a position created for her, later when she does make that presentation it is rebuffed summarily, and she is not able to engender all of the closure she wishes to bring about. As her ex-lover yells at her when she confronts him at his house, “You can’t just wrap everything up in a nice fucking bow whenever you want!” Setback after setback greet Amy after her rebirth. 

But that is not the end of Amy’s story. 

A Better World is Already Here

“Hell is not where we’re going, Hell’s where we’ve been.”

—Tim McIlrath, ‘Lanterns’

One of the final images of the show Mad Men is of Don Draper seated in a group meditation, looking serene. The sun is shining, the grass is green. A smile forms on his lips as a bell used in meditation rings. He has found peace in this new era beyond the brutal world of 1950’s Madison Avenue he’s spent most of his life tied to. What then happens is a cross-fade into the famous Coca-Cola commercial urging all the peoples of the world to come together and purchase Coke. How you read this ending says a lot about your opinion of the marketization of every aspect of life. Reportedly Matthew Weiner, the creator of the show, intended it to be uplifting: consummate ad-man, Don Draper, has found peace and has expressed it earnestly through the only medium he knows, Advertising. Others – myself included – viewed it as yet more cynical, mercenary debasement of human existence to commodification; that all Don Draper is capable of doing is injecting more poison into the ecosystem. 

The “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” period of advertising is the one Amy Jellicoe would have been raised in. A focus on The Real Thing now permeates every surface of existence. The world has been remade in the image of the hippies. They had found The Real Thing and would share it with the world the only way they could find that did not require oppressive government intervention: mass commodification of all existence. Hyper focus was now on the individual, their “freely made” choices and how those individual choices could come together for peace. All that was needed was an awakening to that truth.  

At the end of the season one closer, “Burn It Down”, Amy gets to make her presentation to the her old department. After delivering the news that their products are likely poisonous to both their customers and the environment, she gets written off as the crank everyone else treats her new persona as. “We’re not the FDA, Amy. Who are we to say these products aren’t safe?” the department head – her ex-lover – tells her. After she is shut down and leaves the room, she listens at the door and hears herself made the butt of jokes. Revelation – and thus systemic change – is not so easily delivered, she has found.

What may be the most unforgivable feature of Mindfulness Culture is the way it exploits those workers and citizens that are already over-exploited, that are suffering and seeking cessation of the same, or at least a way to lessen their pain. The message received is that meditation will end suffering and make you happier. What ends up happening, in reality, is that the cycle of attachment and craving is started anew, only this time you are after the high of enlightenment, of mindful existence: the glimpse of happiness or of stress-reduction is clutched tightly as a situation to revisit at the earliest opportunity. It becomes avoidance of existence, the opposite of its stated intention. In a phrase, what is on sale is Spiritual Materialism, another product to fill a lack which it itself created. But as Byung-Chul Han notes in his Philosophy of Zen Buddhism, “The absence [...] of the ‘conscious will’ in the Buddhist nothingness is not a ‘lack’ that must be suppressed; rather, it constitutes a special strength of Buddhism. The absence of ‘will’ or of ‘subjectivity’ is precisely constitutive of the peacefulness of Buddhism.”  When you have negatively defined Nothingness and an absence of Will as a “lack,” the resultant image of Buddhism is as a passive philosophy that is intent on the suppression of ‘the hole that can never be whole.’ American Liberal sensibility insists that Something Must Be Done, though the “by us” is left unspoken, and as such Buddhism-as-Passivity, as inoperative, has no place, nor does its manifestly anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist shift from Having-centric to Being-centric. Perhaps this incompatibility is one reason for the secularization of meditation. But as Han abley points out, absence does not imply a lack to be filled: nothingness is not a vacuum. But if this lack of lack, as it were, causes an anxiety of freedom from craving, can that analysis be more widely applied beyond the self to the economy as a whole? Is the thing we’re chasing a plug for a lack that we were previously unaware of? To put it crudely, has the hole within been monetized at the exact moment of its discovery? Caught in the undertow of crude Materialism, daily existence becomes like drowning: you struggle as often as you can to this “surface” for a gulp of air. But you’re still drowning. 

Amy’s final act in “Burn it Down” is uncovering malfeasance in private company emails. She has recognized that the rot goes deeper than just ignorance of interdependence, it is in treating the economic and governmental structures as transcendent entities whose essence remains inviolate and eternal. But they are as much a product of profane life as our own, interdependent on everything for their shape. Zen suggests that a better world already exists, but that by treating the constructs of the world as we perceive it as eternal and transcendent, as a force we must necessarily be subordinated to, we are unable to recognize that larger immanent presence without the practice of zazen which is itself, through the act of the practice, synonymous with that plane of immanence. There is only here and now. Famed Zen teacher Suzuki Shunryu’s advice to students wondering how to maintain the clarity they achieved at retreat was to “Concentrate on your breathing, and it will go away.” And that is what has finally happened to Amy: she has begun to breathe again after being swept up in chase for Authenticity and Mindfulness, finding instead herself further and further invested in the system she is trying to change. Authenticity is marketing; Mindfulness is marketing.

Nothing is lacking. 

Graham Dethmers