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The scattershot application of “neoliberalism” is at its worst when the term gets applied to mindfulness meditation. We saw before how Ron Purser described mindfulness meditation as “neoliberal”. What is that supposed to mean? Modern meditation is frequently described as “neoliberal” in the Handbook of Mindfulness, which Purser coedited, and especially the closing essay by Glenn Wallis (which responds to a thoughtful defence of mindfulness by Rick Repetti in the same volume). Wallis’s piece is a good illustration of how a concept with some legitimate and meaningful uses can get bandied around so casually that it becomes completely specious. Here is Wallis:

You don’t have to look too closely to see that Mindfulness’s most recent progenitors are, of course, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. As I mentioned earlier, Mindfulness has the same DNA and was raised on the same values that undergirds today’s neoliberal, consumer capitalist social structure (acceptance, resilience, self-help, etc.). So, of course Jon Kabat-Zinn [the creator of secularized and medicalized mindfulness meditation] cozies up to corporate CEOs and American military generals. (Wallis 499)

“Mentioned” is the right word, because there’s only one passage earlier in Wallis’s article where he tried to claim anything even like the point that modern mindfulness “has the same DNA and was raised on the same values” as a consumer-capitalist social structure (let alone Reagan and Thatcher) – but apparently he considers that point obvious enough to merit an “of course”. So let’s take a close look at the earlier passage. There Wallis is responding to Repetti’s justifiable view that mindfulness shouldn’t need to change unjust social structures, any more than gardening or dentistry should; “Meditation typically helps individuals process the stresses that accompany encounters with the rough edges of reality…” (Repetti 479) Wallis responds that what strikes him about Repetti’s argument is “its valorization of the neoliberal subject, and hence, his argument’s reactionary stance.” In what way?

In brief, Repetti seems to assume a subject that has no choice but to accept the “unjust world,” adapt to the “rough edges of reality,” and engage in practices that foster resilience. Repetti could not paint a clearer portrait of the diminished neoliberal subject. It is a subject that is perpetually vulnerable in the face of global, financial, environmental, political, ad infinitum insecurities. It is a subject that is racked by a degree of stress and tension that debilitates the real possibility of robust agency. These characteristics—vulnerability together with the necessity of acceptance, resilience, and adaptation—are classic neoliberal assertions about the human subject. This stance, of course, raises the possibility that Mindfulness is simply an unrepentant ally of neoliberalism. (Wallis 497-8)

These bare assertions are all that Wallis gives us to support the claim that modern mindfulness “has the same DNA” as “today’s neoliberal, consumer capitalist social structure”, let alone that its “most recent progenitors” are Reagan and Thatcher! So let’s examine them carefully.

First, let’s ask what should be the obvious question: what subject was ever not “perpetually vulnerable in the face of global, financial, environmental, political, ad infinitum insecurities”? When the hell was that? The socialist economies of modern Scandinavia have probably done the best of any societies in history at providing basic human needs and economic security. Yet are we to believe that the citizens of Norway and Finland, which share a border with Russia, are not perpetually vulnerable to political insecurity? That their coastal cities are not perpetually vulnerable to environmental insecurity? Wendy Brown and I admire the welfare states of the 1950s and 1960s, before Reagan and Thatcher devastated them as a consequence of their genuinely neoliberal ideology – but does Wallis expect us to believe that the world of the Cuban Missile Crisis and air-raid drills was not perpetually vulnerable to global insecurity? Hunter-gatherer societies sometimes had an enviable level of leisure, but they were far more vulnerable than contemporary Americans or Brits to environmental insecurities that caused starvation.

And those are the best cases – the cases that we might take as the most exemplary societies, the ones that in significant respects have done a much better job at providing for human needs and security than the contemporary neoliberal US or UK. Yet even their subjects clearly were and are perpetually vulnerable to a variety of threats. And most human beings have lived with far less security and far more vulnerability than that. It should be patently clear, then, that “a subject that is perpetually vulnerable in the face of global, financial, environmental, political, ad infinitum insecurities” is not merely “the diminished neoliberal subject”, but simply the human subject as such. To be human is to be vulnerable. And Wallis gives us no reason whatsoever to think otherwise. If he believes that his political outlook can make us bulletproof, the burden of proving that claim is on him.

Wallis’s additional claim about “stress and tension” is something of a non sequitur. It is not clear to me that “stress and tension” debilitate the possibility of political agency – it is hard for me to imagine the 1930s labour movement or the soixante-huitards as free of stress or tension! But if it were the case that “stress and tension” debilitate political agency, then that should then be reason for someone like Wallis – who professes such concern for that agency – to cheer modern mindfulness on, since part of the reason for Kabat-Zinn’s success is the demonstrated efficacy of mindfulness meditation in relieving stress.

And these flimsy arguments, it seems, are the best Wallis can do – the most evidence he can muster for the smear that “of course” modern mindfulness’s progenitors are Reagan and Thatcher. I guess there’s also the point that Kabat-Zinn consorts with and advises the powerful – just as the Buddha consorted with and advised the kings of his day, or so many stories of him tell us. I suppose one could therefore refuse on principle to follow the Buddha’s example, in order to retain some sort of purity and immunity from neoliberalism – but if you’re going to refuse to have anything to do with powerful people, good luck in achieving any meaningful sort of social change.

As far as I can tell, then, Wallis’s refusal to accept any vulnerability or “rough edges of reality” is naïve to the point of absurdity. What it is not, though, is unfamiliar. The sad and quixotic dream that one can make oneself or others invulnerable is a dream that repeats throughout history. Aśvaghoṣa famously tells the story of how King Śuddhodana tried to prevent his princely son from becoming a monk by giving him every luxury, shielding him from all vulnerability and all rough edges of life. Naturally, the strategy failed miserably: soon enough the prince saw an old man, a sick man and a dead man, and those sights shocked him into realizing that he was indeed perpetually vulnerable in the face of insecurities, as all human beings are. He knew that no amount of political agency, even the supremely robust agency of a king, could prevent his vulnerability to the insecurities of sickness, old age and death. It was that realization of his own vulnerability – the same realization that Wallis tries in vain to portray as belonging only to the “diminished neoliberal subject” – that led the prince to become the Buddha.