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The Privatisation of Spirituality. Genetically Modified Practice for Business. A Critique
Go into any major bookstore in the High Street, browse bookshelves at airports or look online and you will see a wide variety of books for sale on spirituality/mindfulness/psychology/mind/body and spirit tailored for businesses. Numerous leaders/coaches/facilitators and teachers in these fields offer a range of courses/workshops/retreats and training programmes for businesses leaders/ management/marketing consultants/sales staff and office workers.
Books for businesses like to adopt spiritual themes from the East including relaxation, meditation, mindfulness, loving kindness, sharing of experiences and being in the present moment. Some books simply have a spiritual title with little or no reference to spiritual enquiry in the text. You have to read the book to see whether the title and content bear any real relationship to each other. Here are the titles of some of the books available:
Business and Spirituality. Exploring Possibilities for a New Management Paradigm
Climb a Different Ladder. Self Awareness, Mindfulness and Successful Leadership
Coming to our Senses. Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness
How to Apply Mindfulness to Business Relationships
Mindfulness at Work. How to Avoid Stress, Achieve More and Enjoy Life
Spirituality in Business: The Hidden Success Factor
Spirituality in Business: Theory, Practice and Future Directions
Starting a Spiritual Business
The Invisible Hand: Business, Success and Spirituality
The Palgrave Handbook of Spirituality and Business
The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success
The Tao of Business
The Tao of Leadership
The Tao of Sales
The Tao of Trading
The Tao of Warren Buffett
Zen Entrepreneurship. Walking the Path of the Career Warrior
Zen of Business Administration
Zen of Social, Media, Marketing
At home and abroad, low paid office staff/factory workers/cleaners/truck drivers, chauffeurs and others remain excluded from the benefits of these spiritual programmes, even though stress affects all employees from top to bottom. Common causes for stress for corporate employees include demands to achieve production targets, punctual deliveries, bullying, harassment and blame. Poor working environments, such as too hot or too cold temperatures in the work place, a crowded factory floor, poor seating, standing for long periods, poor lighting, handling of chemicals, dangerous equipment, as well as low hourly rates, builds up more and more stress for employees.
The CEOs, directors and management working in comfortable, spacious offices, with temperature control, on a good salary with large bonuses, do not experience many of the causes for stress of the lowly paid. Corporations run like the ancient Indian caste system with the Brahmins claiming all the privileges at the expense of the lowly paid who become the outcaste, the untouchables and the undeserving. Stress reduction programmes and spiritual workshops remain the exclusive right of the privileged.
GM (genetically modified) crops and corporate spirituality share a common strategy. GM crops drive out the essential ingredients that support our eco- system and the natural relationship between fields with crops and the local habitat. Similarly, corporations promote a GM brand of spirituality. They drive out the essential ingredients that support the opportunity for one and all for awakening and transformation, while making claims of the profound benefits engineered to meet the corporations’ objectives. This is the pick-and-choose mentality – regardless of the cost to people and our eco-system.
The privatisation of spirituality in business targets individuals in the office so that they can relax at work, get on with others, and see all problems as personal. An individual working exclusively on herself or himself will not see the causes and conditions for stress, conflict and exploitation in the policies and structure of the company and their treatment of workers. The privatisation of spirituality lets corporations off the hook. Outside the business world, we witness the same privatisation of spirituality in self-help programmes. Whereas authentic spirituality addresses together inner and outer life, the personal and the public, the one and the many, the person and the surrounding culture.
What does spirituality actually mean?
There appears to be no underlying definition. You can make it mean whatever you want it to mean. The dictionary tells us that “spirituality” relates to the human spirit or soul as opposed to the material world. We can ask the same question. What does that mean? Others may define spirituality as the search for or the sense of the sacred. What does that mean while working in the office? Others see spirituality as sensitivity, values and respect for the ordinary. Others see the spiritual as a code of ethics or a sense of oneness. Some define spirituality as a certain kind of personal experience. Spirituality is thus an ideal concept suitable for corporate individuals who wish to find some meaning in their life, other than being slaves to the office.
Has the time come to give a sharp and inclusive definition to spirituality? The definition would liberate spirituality from the privatisation of a special experience for the self. For example, we could state that ‘spirituality’ means:
The application of ethics, mindfulness and wisdom, inwardly and outwardly.
A three- fold definition of ethics, mindfulness and wisdom would contribute to profound exploration of the legal person called the corporation. Spirituality would then be an instrumental tool in opening Pandora’s Box. The dark underworld of certain powerful corporations would enter the consciousness of the body of the corporation. It would mark the end of the gloss, smug and self-cherishing picture of certain corporations of themselves. They would realise the harm and suffering they contribute to people, animals and the Earth and have to make root and branch changes to their policies.
Perhaps spirituality has become so compliant with the view of inner experience of the self, whether at work or elsewhere, that the concept of spirituality cannot expand itself to include ethics and wisdom. If so, there is little point in the application of the concept. Karl Marx famously referred to religion as the opiate of the people. We can make the same point today with regard to spirituality. It has become the opiate of the middle classes.
GM spirituality has become a supplementary industry, an appendix to corporations to promote brand image, increase market share and support the objectives of corporations: namely increase production and profit in a relaxed environment. Such spirituality for business neglects to draw deeply and expansively from the long history of profound spiritual traditions and the spiritual/religious communities that have evolved.
We need to demand corporations show respect to their community of workers worldwide and the impact of corporate policies on rural and urban communities. For example, the major GM seed producers, such as Monsanto (USA), Du Pont (USA) and Syngenta (Switzerland), persuade farmers to be dependent on their agri-business which weakens self-supporting communities. These corporations sell GM seeds that survive for a season so farmers then have to buy seeds from the corporation for the next season. This method effectively controls farmers and also keeps control over the kind of crops available while turning organic life into IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) of the corporation.
GM spirituality has little to do with the goal of an enlightened way of living but actually confirms an unenlightened approach to spirituality. There is a dark underworld in powerful businesses that remains far from being brought into the field of mindfulness.
For example, some of the world’s largest corporations have hired private intelligence firms and partnered with government intelligence agencies to spy on non-profit organisations, groups and activists. The Centre for Corporate Policy in Washington, DC says that as many as one in four activists could be spies for corporations. Corporations will focus particularly on environmental activists, though this is not an exclusive focus. This corporate abuse of power undermines democracy and the important work of non-profit organisations and activists campaigning for social and environmental justice, as well as holding accountable the violent and corrupt practices of corporations. Corporations will send in spies to attend company workshops on mindfulness/spirituality to report whether the facilitator engages with staff in enquiry in any areas of questionable corporate practice. Facilitators, who dare to mention ethics, will generally find the corporation politely ends any further invitations to lead workshops.
It also must be stated that there are a small but growing number of influential voices within the corporate world who recognise that something seriously is amiss in corporate policies, structures and belief systems with all of its harmful consequences. These thoughtful advocates know the necessity of a major root and branch change so that corporations live respectfully for the welfare of society and the environment. Though currently few and far between, these voices point to a radical change in values and vision.
We need to give them every encouragement to speak up against the ongoing policies that ride roughshod over people, infrastructure and habitats. Spellbound by their selfish policies, corporations consistently live in denial of the harm they cause. These advocates know the difference between the willingness to develop a spiritual awareness of inter-connectedness and superficial public relation exercises to get the mounting public protests off their backs. The Buddha’s message to the powerful that live in delusion is simple. “WAKE UP!”
Promises. Promises. Promises.
In the past 50 years, we have had countless promises that spiritual /psychological practices/explorations would change consciousness of countess numbers of citizens and organisations, from the lowly paid factory and office workers to the CEO. These approaches towards change include:
MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction)
Mindfulness ( various forms)
NLP (Neuro-linguistic Programming)
Transcendental Meditation (TM),
Vipassana (as in Buddhist monasteries)
Numerous influential voices in corporations report they have benefitted from reading the books of various spiritual teachers. Many have attended the public talks, workshops or retreats of teachers speaking about the transformation of consciousness. Perhaps these corporate leaders listened to their teachings on a DVD or watched them on YouTube. Despite such widespread exposure to teachings and teachers, there is little indication of deep questioning of the corporation, which is treated as a ‘legal person’ under the law in various countries, including the USA. The old patterns/habits/karma seems to carry on in much the same way with profit and power still at the forefront of consciousness of the corporation. In the past 50 years, the popular spiritual teachers/psychologists/religious leaders in the corporate world include:
These approaches, spiritual and psychological, have generated waves of interest, rising and falling, until they find their natural place in the flow of things. All seek to bring awareness to daily life, both in the office and at home. Some influential voices, like B.F. Skinner and J.B. Watson, had considerable influence on business for years despite their methods and their conclusions. We still wait for signals of a revolutionary change of attitude encompassed in spiritual values based on co-operation rather than exploitation.
Spiritual movements have the potential to be an active force for change. An enlightened approach campaigns for real change. This requires insight, courage, risk taking, initiatives, vision and a commitment to policies stating the change. Spiritual and religious leaders of all faiths tend to speak in generalities, rather than name in clear specific terms the greed, violence and delusion in corporate/consumerism and the subservience of our elected politicians to corporate ideology.
Spiritual leaders appear to have gone along with GM spirituality with its emphasis on confining spirituality to certain kinds of inner experience, bearing no active relationship to the policies of the corporation or the world that we inhabit. It may not even occur to spiritual teachers that they have submitted to the privatisation of the self at the expense of radical change, near and far, that points to a liberated and compassionate way of life.
The public sector might seem to be a more constructive avenue to express something spiritual. After all, many of those in the public sector work for the common good – despite modest income, media attacks, fear of redundancy and regular salary/pension cutbacks, even for the lowest paid workers. Education, health care, local government, public services, transport, media, police, the judiciary and the millions of supporting charities, foundations and non-government organisations work for the welfare of people, animals and the environment. It could be argued that many people in the public sector, who are committed to providing a public service, express something spiritual about their values.
There is much stress in the public sector as well, such as hospitals and clinics endeavouring to achieve targets. Doctors and nurses may have to perform a certain number of operations per day. They may have to see a number of patients per day or offer appointments within a certain period, no matter how many requests there are from patients. Stress also arises through the restraints of tight financial budgets and equipment that needs urgent repairs or modernisation. With such pressure, staff can lose the sense of offering a compassionate service and feel like automatons running from one task to another. Many of the same thoughtful people would probably be suspicious of being identified with the spiritual since spirituality often sounds vague, wish-washy and other worldly. A key feature of spirituality incudes forms of service for the welfare of others, often referred to as karma yoga in the East.
Having superseded religious beliefs, often deemed irrelevant in contemporary society, GM spirituality serves the ambitions of corporate empires, not the deep well-being of people, animals, our eco system.
The growing belief in scientific standpoints on reality, the tensions between people of faith and varying dogma on matters of faith have marginalised religious faith from business. Social issues, such as patriarchal standpoints, homophobia, contraception, marriage and divorce have also contributed to a mass exodus of religious believers. Most former believers, as well as agnostics and atheists, have walked into the welcoming arms of the religion of corporate/consumerism. Born again Homo Shoppiens, they live out their primal instincts of the hunter-gatherer in the secular churches called shopping malls and supermarkets. Yet, the need for something other than crass consumerism and the dryness of scientific measurement remains. GM spirituality is not the solution to the superficialities of daily life, nor are self-help books lining the shelves of bookshops.
It is unfortunate that spirituality has become yet another brand label that covers up the deep issues of love, transformation and transcendence, as well as the search for meaning and connection. There is a deception here though. Spirituality finds itself trapped in the self. Self-help, self-confidence, self-inquiry, self-improvement, self-esteem, self-love, self-realization and self-compassion emphasise the inner life. Of course, such explorations of the inner life offer immense benefit. We can keep the hand on the centre of our chest for periods, as a genuine contribution towards a compassionate self-healing. Yet, we must not forget that self, self, self creates more and more distance from the outer. These programmes of the privatized world rarely generate outer change that contributes to so much personal suffering. It is hard to find any evidence of corporate change through any one of these self-help programmes. We need a genuine sangha of mindful people working simultaneously for inner-outer change.
Narrow Expressions of Spirituality
Owing to the misinterpretation of the Eastern traditions, spirituality slides downhill into a repetition of concepts – Being, Oneness and the Now, that end up as rhetorical flourishes and language games inhibiting further enquiry, fundamental change and an emancipating vision. A person who has an experience of Being, Oneness or the Now may honestly believe that he or she has reached the final goal. With such limited understanding of the expanse of spiritual realisations, the individual thinks that he or she has achieved full enlightenment. GM spirituality within corporations and outside of them supports such views which actively discourage deeper enquiry. Teachers of such narrow expressions of spirituality tend to treat thought as the primary hindrance to enlightenment and consequently, naïve practitioners exclude a thoughtful analysis of harmful social/corporate/political policies.
Stress certainly emerges from excessive thinking but to then go and react against thought, and make thought the villain, shows violence against thought. These same spiritual gurus tell us to go beyond thought, beyond the mind and abide in Being. This is what spiritual leaders say as a result of what they think! Wisdom recognises the value of thought, of skilful reflection, and discerns beneficial thought from problematic thought and follows healthy thought through with wise action.
These concepts of Being, Oneness, the Now have become forms of psychological imprisonment through the grasping after such unitive kinds of experiences and then elevating these temporary experiences into an ultimate reality – devoid of any enquiry into action, love and wisdom. In the face of exploitation, we need a wise and compassionate response to the suffering that our primary institutions cause. This response would be far more significant than the desire to rest in the experience of so called Being or the Now.
Here are some examples to show the limits of unitive experiences:
If Being always remains the same and is the only ultimate and true reality, then there is no point in any kind of action since it would make no difference.
If Being reveals itself as everything changing, there would be no point in doing anything because everything is changing anyway.
If there is Being which always remains the same and, simultaneously, there is constant change, then what is it that always remains the same and what is it that changes?
If Oneness always remains the same and is the ultimate and true reality, then there is no point in action since action makes no difference to Oneness.If Oneness reveals itself as everything changing, there would be no point in action since every outcome would change.
If the Now always remains the same and is the ultimate and reality, then there is no point in action since actions won’t make any difference.
If the Now is the only Truth and the Real, then memory and plans become false and unreal.
If the Now includes the past and views of the future, and everything else, there is no point in doing anything because it is all in the Now.
The grasping onto Being, Oneness or the Now lends itself to passivity, submission and blind acceptance. The reliance on such experiences for awakening rejects the necessity of non-acceptance of greed, violence and delusion. The capacity to rest in Being constrains wise action. There is no authentic relationship of Truth to Being since seeing the Truth of a situation makes possible new eventualities.
Being in the Now or feeling at one with everything becomes a habitual condition of mind that resists change while the impact of a liberating truth sets the course for fresh happenings. The adoption of spiritual viewpoint of resting in Being or the Now reveals already a lack of enquiry into the Dharma of unfolding processes. Those who grasp onto such experiences as the ultimate reality show an unwillingness to make judgments resulting in a failure to act to make radical changes, inwardly and outwardly. An enlightened wisdom, compassion and skilful action take priority, not resting in Being or the Now without making judgments. The judgment of non-judgment shows naivety in the name of spirituality. Such views perpetuate suffering, not resolve suffering.
The Secularisation of Spirituality
The secularisation of spirituality has generated a backlash against those committed to the religious life, especially those who have taken ordination. Secular spirituality has rejected the religious life of monks, nuns and priests, as if they had no relevance in contemporary society. Certain spiritual teachers claim that those who take ordination have failed to dissolve their desires but have suppressed them. If we are hostile to religion, then we, who have moved away from religion, need to ask ourselves: (In alphabetical order)
Are we modifying these ancient teachings to maximise personal popularity?
Do we believe that there is no baggage in secular spirituality?
Do we believe we never suppress our desires?
Do we claim we teach without baggage?
Do we collude with corporations to water down teachings leading to awakening?
Do we feel let down by religion?
Do we put down people of faith to build up our sense of self-worth?
Do we reject offering teachings on a donation basis?
Do we teachers of spirituality use spirituality to develop a career?
Do we think religious people are naïve and secular teachers abide with clarity?
Do we, who are spiritual teachers, charge exorbitant fees for our teachings?
We express concerns about the militant voices of religious fundamentalists in all the major faiths, East and West. We can also express equal concern about liberals. With their lack of passionate conviction, the liberal minded spiritual/religious spend far too much time living in ambiguous perceptions, unclear and indecisive. They inhibit the movement towards profound change as much as the fundamentalists. The polite and respectful posture of the liberal minded intelligentsia have little to offer in the way of real change to corporate power. They keep to a climate of silence on corporate policies or offer unhelpful views such as: ‘It could be like this or it could be like that.” The Buddha described such liberals as ‘eel wrigglers’ since they want to wriggle out of any dispute with authority. Including far too many Buddhists, liberals seem to have trained their minds to say little of real interest.
There is a terror of saying anything that might remotely appear to be controversial. You might have thought that many spiritual teachers have been media trained to describe events only in the most banal language possible, rather than have a clear, unambiguous view of major issues of our time. Right View, the first link in the Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha, matters. Fearful of sounding judgemental, far too many Buddhists seem to offer nothing or next to nothing in expressing real concerns about some of the important issues of our time, such as the very survival of our species. We might think that Buddha said the first link of the Path is No View or Wishy Washy View. It would seem the liberals would rather the planet died than allow themselves to speak up with passion and conviction, and perhaps reveal their flawed humanity. Religious fundamentalists and liberals advocating spiritual practices and insights, have little to offer in the way of making changes to the corporate/political ideologies that cast a dark shadow over our daily life.
Some secular Buddhists in the West show little regard for Buddhist monks and nuns even though these secularists generally have no experience whatsoever of life as a monk, nun or priest in the West. The ordained Buddhists face daily challenges to maintain an austere way of life with little understanding from consumer culture. Monasteries, ashrams, churches, synagogues and ashrams have a vital function in our culture. The Sanghas of the faithful, of believers in religion, often work to support each other, the local community and organise supportive programmes for those who suffer. We need the wise counsel of those who have renounced much of the material world to concentrate on spiritual matters. Proponents of GM spirituality need to examine their prejudices against monks, nuns, priests and people of faith and develop the humility to learn from the wisdom available in such religious traditions.
Major corporations build huge business cathedrals for self-glorification with opulent splendour stretching up into the sky, while their executives look down from the top floors on churches, mosques, synagogues, monasteries and civic society. Old and unused churches have been sold off to the business world to convert into nightclubs, bars, pubs, coffee shops and markets. Money has become a form of holy communion to gain access to the church of the shopping malls, supermarkets and online sales. The desire for more and more is the mental sickness of our age. The ending of one desire gives rise to another desire. There is a relentless pressure to gain, to succeed and to possess. This is a collective pathology. Corporations, governments and citizens live in the spell of this life destroying mentality. There are core questions that spiritual leaders could ask business leaders/management running businesses accumulating vast wealth:
When do you say. ‘We overcharge for our products.’
When do you say ‘enough is enough’?
When do you say: ‘Our business has lost its way?’
When do you say: ‘We have produced enough of these products?’
When do you say ‘We are trapped in desire, greed and exploitation?’
When do you ask yourselves seriously: ‘Are we addicted to profit and success?’
When do you say: ‘We have let down our workers and our customers?’
When do you ask: ‘Do we suffer from a mental dis-ease?’
When do you ask: ‘What is the point working in these corporate cathedrals, alongside other mentally ill people?
When do you ask: ‘What would it mean to bring a spiritual revolution to our entire business?
The world of religion/spirituality/mindfulness/psychology has failed to question the unhealthy attitudes and lifestyles of our corporate popes and cardinals. The belief in the Church of Consumerism shows a serious degree of delusion that requires urgent spiritual and psychological treatment. This belief in consumerism sustains violence upon people and resources.
The Shadow of Businesses over Western Retreat Centres and Western monasteries
The pursuit of profit by business controls to an alarming degree every aspect of social life, including religious institutions, retreat centres, and the capacity of people to meet together to explore inner and outer change. We do not live in a period of state control but of corporate control due to the submissive attitude of Western governments towards corporations.
Religious devotees and Dharma practitioners make immense efforts with money, time and energy to establish, support and sustain facilities for spiritual/religious practices. You would be hard pressed to find such selfless dedication in the corporate world. Spiritual centres, monasteries and places for devotion find themselves in a constant struggle to raise the funds to keep such facilities running. Building regulations, health and safety policies, along with building requirements (down to the tiniest details), ensure the grip of business over spiritual centres and monasteries. Local government inspectors have the power to go to any spiritual/religious establishment and enforce dramatic alterations, including widespread refurbishment, heating, plumbing and insurance. If trustees do not comply, inspectors can issue a centre or a monastery with orders for closure.
The inspectors warn about the consequences of ignoring legislation, neglecting bylaws and rejecting building regulations in places where people meet together. The chances of a catastrophe in a mindful retreat centre, monastery or building for prayer are very remote. The obsession in the political/corporate world to control every area of our life impacts on every citizen. Such control keeps the economy moving and facilities under control of the authorities. The demands to meet with regulations, and the growing cost involved, ensure the daily rates of retreats keep going up and up every year. This forces people to work harder and longer to cover the costs of attending a retreat. Trustees and teachers find themselves powerless to say “No” to these demands on such centres.
To take some examples:
A retreat centre in Massachusetts, USA, had to spend around $750,000 to refurbish major wings of the centre to satisfy health and safety demands.
A centre near Bonn, Germany spent €30,000 to fit a new kitchen. Health and safety inspectors condemned the previous kitchen, even though retreats had been held at the centre for 340 days per year for more than 20 years and nobody have become ill from the meals served at breakfast, lunch or in the evening. Under hygiene laws, the health inspectors banned the cooks, staff and teachers from eating their meals in the new kitchen.
Health and safety inspectors closed the main meal marquis of a much loved festival in the UK, despite no reports of anyone getting sick from the nutritious diet provided in more than a decade of the annual five day festival. The marquis served as a major source of income to ensure the financial stability of the alcohol free, drug free festival, popular with parents and children.
In Australia, insurance companies put up the cost of insurance against fire and accident in retreat centres to a level that the made the daily rate unaffordable for low income meditators.
In the UK, regulations for so-called historic buildings meant that the costs of renovation, such as a new heating system and maintenance inside and outside, spiralled the annual costs upwards. It means that more and more people, from teenagers, single mothers, students, unemployed, low income and pensioners, can no longer afford to attend the retreats held in an historic building.
A California centre endeavours to raise $18,000,000 for a dramatic expansion of their centre. Architects, local government and building regulations ensure such exorbitant costs.
Along with other teachers and managers, I taught our annual Bodh Gaya retreat in the Thai Monastery between 1975 and 2013, and also in Sarnath, North India since 1999. The retreats employed a team of five cooks to cook breakfast and lunch for the 100 participants during two 10 day retreats. Owing to our health concerns, we had to apply high level of mindfulness for the welfare of participants. I told our cooks in Bodh Gaya on the first day in 1975 that they had to wash their hands every time they used the toilet (squat toilet, no toilet paper, left hand applied). I asked the cooks why people got sick. The cooks discussed the matter in Hindi between themselves. They all agreed: “Karma,” they replied. They initially obeyed my hand-washing rule because “guru-ji had spoken,” not through understanding the health hazard between the use of the toilet and preparation of food. I would never ever condone such questionable conditions in a kitchen in the West. The skilful application of mindfulness contributes directly to the welfare of people. Mindfulness offers support and protection even in the most trying of circumstances.
Teachers, managers and cooks work mindfully together every year in India to ensure we uphold the best hygiene practices, despite ‘rock bottom’ cooking facilities. To our knowledge, nobody has suffered from stomach problems due to polluted food or drink on our retreats attended by thousands over 40 years. We offer rice, dhal, curried vegetables and salad, plus boiled water to drink. The cooks use an open fire to cook, prepare chapattis on a mat on the floor, not on a table, and use large bowls to wash the vegetables from the local market to make salad. Plenty of participants have come direct from the West for the first time to India with stomachs used to the high levels of hygiene, yet still remain healthy on our Indian retreats.
The chemical business, health inspectors and advertising propaganda have brainwashed our society into a personal obsession about hygiene with daily advertisements on the television and other media saying that their toilet cleaner kills 99.9% of all known germs! It is another form of corporate control, a profit making enterprise, a lack of trust in people to be mindful in matters of hygiene, health and safety. We can apply the principles and practices of mindfulness in centres and religious institutions to ensure that all participants enjoy nourishing and healthy food, a safe environment, well maintained facilities amidst simple living conditions.
The Buddha spoke of the raft to cross over from samsara (the realm of suffering) to Nirvana, (the happiness of liberation from suffering). Various retreat centres have become spiritual hotels. Instead of a raft to cross to the other shore, these centres have become more like five star ocean going liners, a pure environment, spotlessly clean not unlike the most modern hospital.
Meanwhile, the hearts of human beings have become polluted with greed, violence and delusion while living in fear of sickness, bugs and allergies.
Application of Spirituality
We see the compartmentalisation of society into religion, science, education, business and culture. Spiritual movements tread lightly with regard to business and politics. This atomisation into these institutions is unhelpful, a false divide, a naïve separation of co-dependent events making up daily life. The Buddha’s teaching emphasise placing mindfulness in all direction so that we become clear about the consequences of our actions whether personal, corporate or political. He pointed to the falsehood and emptiness of obsessing with self-existence since everything, including a powerful corporation, relies upon everything else. The corporation deludes itself in thinking it possess a self-existence.
A Dharma enquiry/reflection/investigation names the unhealthy, addresses such patterns and seeks to transform the unhealthy regardless of any atomisation of independent self-existence. We develop peace of mind and an integrated way of life through inner and outer change.
The Buddha said: “Dharma is taught by me, by way of enquiry; the four applications of mindfulness, inner and outer towards body, feelings, states of mind and Dharma, are taught by way of enquiry; the noble path is taught by way of enquiry. Thus Dharma is taught by way of enquiry.” S.3.96
A key feature of the Buddha’s teachings, Dharma enquiry safeguards us from submission to harmful authority, corporate, political, religious and secular.
Corporate Consumerism and Buddha Dharma
Corporations or spiritual coaches will promote Tibetan lamas, Thai Ajahns, Zen Masters, Taoist adepts, Indian gurus and charismatic Western teachers of Eastern spirituality to add a little mystique to the company and the product. The market consultants then can sell a company or product as having an exotic image. You find Buddha images everywhere including in the offices of corporations with unethical business practices. The Buddha Dharma offers a different world view from corporate/consumer capitalism
CORPORATE/CONSUMERISM BUDDHA DHARMA Apolitical party political Social Justice Being in the Now Enquiry into causes and conditions Competition Cooperation Consumption Sustainability Hierarchy Wisdom and Compassion Individuality Sangha of Enquiry Profit Sharing of benefits Self-interest Non-self interest Privatisation of self Reflection/Enquiry/Action Status Seeing Emptiness of ego Stress Reduction Stress destruction Success Enlightened life
GM spirituality is the equivalent of a small branch in the great tree of the Buddha Dharma. Dharma enquiry (Dharma vicaya) includes:
nature of desire
emptiness of I, me and mine,
enquiry into our relationship with people, animals or environment,
right action and results.
Mindfulness courses provide an outstanding service to people suffering with physical pain, stress and despair. There is widespread appreciation in the medical profession for the way the daily disciplines of the application of mindfulness to the mind/body contribute to inner peace and clarity. These practices truly work. MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) trainers and their clients can offer substantial evidence of the benefits of mindfulness with health and stress problems. MBSR courses have changed the attitude and outlook of people’s lives. It is a different story in terms of mindfulness in the business world. The reduction of stress in the office certainly has much merit. There is no parallel evidence to show that mindfulness courses and spirituality has changed the attitude and outlook of a single corporation. These workshops offer no challenge whatsoever to the impact of corporate control over people and the Earth or to corporate/consumer ideology
As previously stated, far too many founders of so called spiritual movements have marginalised profound teachings of awakening, quietly excluding anything remotely controversial, in order to curry favour with big business to gain approval, status and income. GM spiritually, regardless of the original sphere of influence, restricts mindfulness to a personal practice, rather than inner-outer circumstances and empowerment to act. As a consequence, business has rebranded spirituality as marketing tools that obscures the hidden side of corporate policies, rather than apply spiritual exploration as a force for inquiry and transformation.
The Cult of Corporations
While in India in February 2014, some friends who work as mindfulness teachers sent me a brief clip from the Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco. A panel discussion had begun titled 3 Steps to Corporate Mindfulness the Google Way when a handful of activists entered the packed hall of corporate mindfulness leaders. They secretly gained entrance to protest against the frequent eviction of low income local residents from their homes so landlords could make much more money from well paid employees of Google and other corporations in the area. Rents near Google bus stops rose 20% in a year affecting local tenants struggling to make ends meet.
Rather than listen to the real concerns of the activists, a senior manager at Google. Bill Douane, advised the audience to “check in with your body” and “feel what it’s like to be in conflict with people with heartfelt ideas that may be different from what we’re thinking.” As he spoke, Google security guards were engaging in a rather aggressive tug of war with the activists to pull down their banner Eviction Free San Francisco they had unfurled at the edge of the stage. Then Douane told the audience “to take a second and see what it’s like.” The audience dutifully obeyed rather than listen to the grievances of the protestors. It would have been more mindful for the audience to hear what it’s like to be evicted. But that’s not the Google way.
When I first saw this clip, I thought it was a Monty Python Sketch! But it turned out to be an actual event clearly exposing the shallowness and absurdity of corporate mindfulness. As viewers of the clip, we would have to assume that the security guards eviction of those voicing dissent gave a clear example of the ‘Google Way’ of mindfulness, namely the exclusion of dissent. Wisdom 2.0 cut the live feed and deleted the interruption from their video. Fortunately, someone filmed the two minute scene (see YouTube: Wisdom.20. Eviction).
Activists, campaigners, protestors, critiques and polemics continue to offer the strongest voices for change in the corporate empire. Thoughtful people apply their skills out of passion and conviction to support life on Earth and transform the culture of corporate consumerism. There is something spiritual about these commitments. They put an immense amount of time, energy and personal resources to team together to put real pressure on governments and corporations to change their behaviour.
Spiritual workshop leaders working with business men and woman lack the inner empowerment to inquire deeply into corporate values. We should not expect them to be engaged in the work for deep change in corporate policies. Sadly, some spiritual/mindfulness leaders appear to be caught up in a triumphalism and personal hubris around their courses as if these courses will transform capitalism. They have fallen into the same trap as businesses of converting their spiritual programmes into a marketable commodity.
Leaders sell the product of spirituality/mindfulness/psychology for a high daily rate. Sadly, far too many spiritual teachers working in the business world have taken on board with unquestioning obedience the expectations of corporations. They are unable to stay free from all the business baggage to offer the essential Dharma, especially Dharma Enquiry/Reflection/Investigation/Analysis and the subsequent Right Action.
Entrenched in a conservative view, spiritual programmes for business mostly offer a safe, non-challenging, non-enquiring approach. These programmes do not serve as a spearhead for change but function as a useful appendix to corporate strategies for self-promotion. The Buddha Dharma works far, far beyond the scope of such workshops. Instead, these leaders need to recognize that mindfulness/spirituality functions like a trendy product that corporations have hooked onto enabling them to continue unfettered consumption with a mindful, happy public face. Rather than inquiring to dissolve corporate/consumer culture of excess and its consequences, far too many spiritual teachers have allowed themselves to be hijacked for corporate ends.
To their credit, teachers bringing insights and practices from the Buddhist, Taoist and Yoga traditions endeavor to find a language suitable for the business community. The skilful use of language enables a transmission of teachings to take place. It only takes some exaggeration of a simple practical tool for the tool eventually to reveal its shadow. For example, spiritual teachers tend to repeat ad nausea the importance of being in the here and now, as if nothing else mattered.
There is even a widespread belief that the Buddha primarily taught being in the now as the path and goal of practice. It is far from the truth. The Buddha never gave teachings to be “here and now.” Buddhist scholars have very freely translated the Buddha’s words ditthe dhamme as here and now. Ditthe means view and dhamme refers to Dharma, namely all objects (in the mind and in the world, past, present or future), the teachings and truth. Ditthe does not mean here and dhamme does not mean now.
The Buddha did not offer any kind of substance view to the present moment. Ditthe dhamme can also mean viewing with regard to the Dharma. Popular teachers of Being, such as Jon Kabat- Zinn, Eckhart Tolle, Adyashanti and others resident in North America, offer useful reminders and practices for being calm, peaceful and in the present moment. This is commendable.
Their words do give the impression that they seem to believe that their teachings on Being are in accordance with the ultimate Dharma of the Buddha. These Western teachers often equate abiding in Being as enlightenment. The Buddha taught liberation from taking up experiences of being or non being. He made it clear on numerous occasions that nothing is worth grasping onto including the experience of being. An enlightened life bears no relationship to adopting a single experience as enlightenment. You can experience being, remain calm, come and go, feel a quiet inner self on a daily basis and still be far, far from an enlightened life. The calm witness with a sense of being has simply made a few useful steps along the road of dharma enquiry to an enlightened way of life.
There are numerous examples of corporations exploiting a blend of commercial power and spirituality to promote a product. Apple Inc., the Californian based consumer electronics corporation, marketed their CEO, Steve Jobs (1955 to 2011) as a Zen Buddhist, with an austere monk like appearance, who spent six months in India in 1974 and practised meditation until his early death, aged 56. The marketing of Jobs as a successful hippy type offering cool products neglected to mention his personal wealth of a staggering $8.2 billion. It might be worthwhile to repeat the sum, His personal wealth was 1000 x one million dollars x 8. Instead the Apple publicity department boasted that the corporation only paid Jobs $1 a year. Forbes made him the 42nd wealthiest American in a nation of 300 million citizens. Whether Jobs was a practising Buddhist, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Muslim or born again secularist has no real bearing on his powerful role as CEO of Apple.
There is nothing cool about Apple Inc. It is a brutally aggressive company. Presumably, Jobs acquired much of his staggering wealth through his corporation selling overpriced computers, overpriced iPhones and overpriced iPads, inflicting punishing conditions on Chinese factory workers and avoiding paying corporation tax as much as possible.
Our hearts reach out to Jobs, his family and friends, due to his long and losing struggle with pancreatic cancer. It could be argued that his desire to gain such personal wealth, running into several billion dollars, reveals another type of pathology, namely the accumulation of staggering wealth. Perhaps this pathology reveals a more serious condition than pancreatic cancer owing to the wider consequence on the poor in the USA, Chinese employees and elsewhere. Jobs died in early October 2011. Two weeks after his death, his authorised biography became available. The story of the life of Steve Jobs, his rise to so-called success in business and his interest in Buddhism and spirituality, proved to be the biggest selling book on Amazon for 2011, even though the book came out in late October of that year.
The marketing of Steve Jobs ( the promotion of the cult of personality) successfully obscured the fact that Steve Jobs ran a world-wide corporation obsessed with success regardless of sweatshop labour, unethical business practices, the use of dangerous chemicals and environmental destruction. Those who market Apple Inc. may not even be mindful that the massive promotion of their CEO obscured enquiry into the business model of their corporation. Apple Inc. is not cool. It is cold, ice cold. There is no indication of real empathy for those employees living in hardship or for those suffering due to the environment impact on citizens in subsidiary companies.
The US Senate Committee reported that Apple Inc. cut their U.S. corporate income tax by an average of $10 billion-a-year for the past four years – money that could have supported around 50 million desperately poor people in the USA surviving on food stamps, and several million living lonely lives on the streets of US cities or in squalid housing conditions. Apple Inc. and their CEO never had any interest in the plight of the poor since the price of their products are far out of reach of those people relegated to the gutters of society.
It is irrelevant that Steve Jobs practised Zen meditation, a fact used as though this confirmed him as a wise and compassionate human. Liberals tend to nod with approval of the great success story of Jobs. Personal and corporate greed and the Buddha-Dharma remain utterly incompatible. The money driven globalisation of corporate/consumer capitalism means that CEO’s of big business neglect compassion for their own employees at the bottom of the wage scale and the desperation that far too many experience. It would be better if more Buddhists found inspiration on their meditation cushion to develop insightful ways to press corporations, such as Apple, to change their aggressive behaviour in the obsession with power and profit.
An enlightened wisdom, compassion and skilful action take priority over resting in Being or the Now, as if that showed some kind of spiritual attainment. There is the capacity for a significant truth to emerge out of a situation, out of an event, including perceptions of past and future, as well as present. The discovery of such insights and realisations of truth can set the course for fresh priorities and vision. Wise judgments emerge from such insights.
Voices of Dissent
We need to explore deeply the Dharma of liberation, a theology of liberation and a spiritual tradition of social enquiry and social justice. This takes bold men and women to implement change. A few small birds can change the direction of a mad elephant.
Indian society did not have a large dependency on slaves for its economic output as was the case with the Greeks, Romans, Persian and Egyptian civilisations. In the last 500 years, the British Empire and the Spanish Empire engaged massively in the slave trade to serve as the backbone of running their Empires. Today we witness Western nations employing cheap labour often in harsh working conditions, indoors and outdoors, to serve the interests of the political corporate empires ambitions and voracious appetite of consumers to maximise pleasurable sensations through the sense doors. We live today in a society of beggars at the sense doors at the expense of millions of lowly paid factory workers who have become the modern slaves.
There are a growing number of voices of dissent in the West with regard to the narrow application of spirituality and narrow application of the profound traditions from the East. These voices of dissent include people with a wide and extensive knowledge and experience of Buddha Dharma, Yoga and Advaita. Spiritual teachers in the West need to take notice of these deep concerns found in a variety of articles, critiques and polemics. To repeat: A few small birds can change the direction of a mad elephant.
There are fearless voices who know that mindfulness practices and spiritual explorations have the potential to change the culture of a corporation from the bottom up an the top down. These voices know that it requires a determination to make explicit the areas to address. Research and inquiry, often through the work of thoughtful campaigning organisations can provide the material and evidence to address the dark side of corporate priorities. Authentic spirituality address the light and the dark, the known and the hidden, the beliefs and the denials. While it may well be important to leave behind religious rituals, canon law and ancient forms, these voices for change need to be mindful of not taking up the baggage of secularism, individualism, status and profit. In the shadow of secular beliefs, office building are replacing churches, office meetings are replacing church services and CEO’s are replacing religious leaders.
The belief in corporate consumerism keeps millions identified with a shallow existence. GM spirituality lacks inquiry into the ‘legal person’ of the corporation. We need to question authority and bring democracy to corporations so workers elect the CEO and directors. We need to find ways to support people and our vulnerable Earth.
When we take a walk late at night and look up into the vastness of the night sky and witness the awesome display of twinkling stars, we could rightly describe this as a spiritual experience. It is personal. It is a private experience. We may describe our experience to others or we may not. The experience depends on feelings, perceptions, interest, love, presence and the sense of wonder. An authentic Dharma enquiry finds ways to transmit the insights and values even from such beautiful experiences into the workplace. The sense of the vast can generate a perspective on the office environment to open up corporate vision.
True insights and realization from a spiritual awareness, even if we call it by other names, influences the way we relate to and act in the material and immaterial world. Our reflections can challenge the obsessive drive of a company for profit and power. We work together for the welfare of all.
GM spirituality is a step. A very, very short step. Authentic spirituality belongs to a bold and liberated exploration. Who will take a big step forward in the corporate world for its transformation?