The mindfulness practice that defies capitalism

by Ellie Leopold



Mindfulness: you’ve probably heard of it; you could even argue it’s the next best thing to

wokism for Gen Z. However, while it stems from ancient practices of yoga and meditation

(particularly in Buddhism), mindfulness and its applications is a recent trend in Western

culture. 

Like other Gen Zs, I’m interested in mindfulness; I’ve tried it and I really believe it can have

profound benefits for mental health. But despite this, I couldn’t escape a niggling feeling I

had: what if mindfulness is just another buzzword without any real substance or meaning -

another product of the commodification of cultural assets, appropriated into the capitalist

system?

'In 2019, mindfulness was a $4 billion industry.'

Interest in mindfulness, alongside its economic value, has certainly shown exponential growth over the past decade. In 2019, mindfulness was a $4 billion industry. In 2020, recent mindfulness trends include experimental and experiential “hands-on” mindfulness

(whatever that means), and the development of IoT (Internet of Things) sensors, AI (Artificial Intelligence) technologies and smartphone applications. Just search “mindfulness” in Amazon (what we like to refer to as the devil at imprint mag.zine) and you’ll immediately be thrust into the consumerist abyss of mindfulness books, mindfulness jars and mindfulness bracelets. It certainly appears that mindfulness has been corrupted, and its integrity destroyed, by the profit motives of big business.

There’s another criticism of mindfulness:

stripped from its Buddhist roots, the practise is argued by some to be little more than a self-discipline tool that adjusts us to the problems of a dysfunctional system. Rather than critically engaging with the societal

causes of suffering and poor mental health, we focus on our own coping, becoming ‘contented capitalists’ and adopting the neoliberal doctrine of individual responsibility. 


But perhaps this is a bit harsh. I interviewed Sholto Radford – clinical psychologist and author of ‘Walk: The Path to a More Mindful Life’ – to get his perspective and he warns we should be wary of these criticisms. When I talked to him earlier this week, I did have to admit that this perspective came almost entirely from a single article in the Guardian that presented no empirical evidence that mindfulness is actually turning us into complacent free market actors.


Sholto (very politely) explained to me how the foundations of this article and its critique may not be as structurally sound as the author of the Guardian article, Ronald Rurser, (and shareholders) of the Guardian would have us believe:

“[The criticism] seems to be setting up a dichotomy between having a focus on your own mental state and then being engaged collectively. I'd turn that on its head and argue that in order to function well within a collective, a group or interpersonally, it's really important to have a certain degree of self-awareness, self-control and insight.”


Let’s hold up a minute though: who exactly is Sholto Radford, and haven’t we already established that mindfulness has become a capitalist commodity? First off, Sholto Radford is not just a clinical psychologist and author, he is an expert in mindfulness - the evidence-based, uncorrupted kind. He is also a researcher at the Centre of Mindfulness Research and Practice and verified mindfulness teacher. Secondly, perhaps the argument that mindfulness is in fact facilitating consumerist capitalism is fundamentally flawed too. Do we even know what we mean when we talk about mindfulness?


Yes, the term ‘mindfulness’ may have been commercialised and exploited in the selling of a plethora of paraphernalia on Amazon (and other equally devilish websites), but mindfulness itself is not and can never be an object or even an idea. Capitalism is a revolving door of ideas and things that make money, atrophy and are then discarded, becoming irrefutable evidence of humankind’s mark on the world. We are obsessed with new ideas, new opinions, new trends – these are the drivers of capitalism – and Sholto describes mindfulness as the antithesis of that system. 

'Mindfulness is not a book, a jar or a bracelet. Mindfulness is a state of awareness […]'

Mindfulness is not a book, a jar or a bracelet. Mindfulness “is a state of awareness […] Although it is accessible to us in any moment, developing the capacity to genuinely integrate mindfulness into our lives is an ongoing process and is unlikely to result from a mindfulness colouring book ” Sholto explains. “There’s an intentional aspect to it –which requires noticing the tendency to get caught up in and led by our thoughts and feelings and intentionally bring our awareness to our present moment experience – It also has an attitudinal qualities including adopting a less judgmental relationship to our experiences, thoughts and emotions, and understanding that that’s all part of being human, that how we feel will change and shift, and being curious about that.” In this way we are able to respond to our current situation from a centred position rather than habitually reacting.


This journey, this innately human state, cannot be commodified. It is beyond capitalism and for that reason, could mindfulness actually do the opposite of what Ronald Purser suggests: could mindfulness – in its true form – be used to defy capitalism?

'Capitalism can also destroy habitats, pollute waters and degenerate the very earth that we walk on.' 

In ‘Walk: A Path to a Mindful Life’, Sholto talks about how our alienation from the natural world in modern society “may not only impact our emotional and psychological well-being, but also how we relate to and treat the environment and planet”. The direct and depletive relationship between capitalism and climate change is undeniable. Capitalism is fuelled by production, which is fuelled by non-renewable energy sources, which produce greenhouse gases and so on – we all know this story, but this is also not the end of the tale. Capitalism can also destroy habitats, pollute waters and degenerate the very earth that we walk on. 

As lockdown restrictions start to ease and people slowly return to normality, that means a mad rush to the shops that’s worse than Black Friday. It seems that our temporary relief from fast-paced consumerism will quickly be forgotten as the entrenched capitalist mindset of our society quickly re-establishes its roots. 

'But materialistic things can’t fill intangible holes. What if, instead, we could find peace with what we have, peace with who we are – holes and all?'

So how can mindfulness help? It seems that neoliberalism has been so successful in indoctrinating itself into our society that we have embodied it into our psyches. A sense of incompleteness, a desire for new products and new experiences, and the belief that these things can make us feel whole, exists within nearly all of us. These are the psychological drivers of the system. But materialistic things can’t fill intangible holes. What if, instead, we could find peace with what we have, peace with who we are – holes and all?


Mindfulness can help us find that contentment and give us the power of self-control that we need to defy capitalism. Sholto makes it very clear, however, that mindfulness is not easy. It’s not a one-click, on-your-doorstep-the-next-day purchase that can satisfy the instant gratification characteristic of Gen Z. It is a practice that takes time, effort and commitment; Sholto couldn’t give me any quick fixes to live a more contented and intentional life, but suggested that many people find taking part in a recognised programme or retreat is a helpful way to learn to practice mindfulness.


He did have one tip though – and this is the essence of his book: walk. That’s right, just step out of your door, past the pile of parcels awaiting your rapid unpacking and subsequent abandonment, and walk. Walk with curiosity and notice what you encounter as you do; be conscious of your breathing, and connect with all of your senses – hearing, touching, seeing and smelling every living and non-living thing that shapes our being. 


Walking is free, largely accessible and can improve both our physical and mental health through exercise and connecting with nature. In fact, walking has seen a significant upsurgence since lockdown restrictions were put in place to alleviate the threat of Covid-19. Gavin Bevis from the BBC commented that “since the coronavirus pandemic led to restrictions on people's movements and activities, many have learned to see their surroundings with fresh eyes, discovering hitherto-unknown walks and beauty spots right on their doorsteps.”

"This lockdown period seems to have given everyone a heightened sense of the simple pleasure of just walking outdoors".

Tom Platt from the Rambler’s Association said, "This lockdown period seems to have given everyone a heightened sense of the simple pleasure of just walking outdoors". In Lancaster, artist Louise Ann Wilson found herself discovering previously unknown routes during her daily exercise; she is now asking local residents to map out their own lockdown walking routes to create a collaborative artwork.


Now, more than ever, we are able to find a path to a mindful life. Yes we have lost some of our freedoms and yes many of us have lost our direction. However, we have also found new freedoms, re-discovering the gratification of one of the earliest ancestral abilities of humankind. And without direction, we can focus on the present moment, both in walking and in our lives. 


Yes, Covid-19 is terrible, and lockdown restrictions have put unprecedented pressure on millions of people’s financial security and psychological wellbeing, yet in another way we seem to have found our breathing space. How can we keep it?


I hope more than anything that we quickly develop a vaccine and can reconnect with friends and family. I also hope though, that we carry forward what we’ve learned about ourselves, our world, and of course, walking. 

Nobody – especially Sholto Radford – is promising that mindfulness is the one-stop-solution to everything that’s wrong with the world, but it could help. It could help us defy consumerism and become more engaged in our inherent and unescapable interconnectedness. If we walk with the intention of practicing mindfulness maybe we can find not just contentment with ourselves, but the reflective state necessary to address climate change, racial inequality, viral pandemics and the myriad of other problems facing our society today.


What it cannot do though is replace essential, systemic change. Individually, mindfulness and walking can give us the breathing space we need to live and thrive. Collectively, we need to take action to reconstruct the systems that cause suffering. 


In the UK, 67 percent of people report that they’re more stressed than they were five years ago. Walking – which is an open monitoring form of mindfulness – generates slow Theta brain waves which are associated with a relaxed, emotionally open and connected state of mind. This can have lasting neurological effects on processes the brain goes through such as stress, awareness, focus and decision-making. 

'COVID-19 – while life destroying – has illuminated the possibility of change in several areas of life, not least our habits and attitudes when it comes to walking.'

But why are 67 percent of people stressed in the first place? The problem lies with our society, not with us. Covid-19 – while life destroying – has illuminated the possibility of change in several areas of life, not least our habits and attitudes when it comes to walking. I don’t think we should let this momentum stop, in fact I think we should stoke the train with renewable energy and lay the tracks for a new system that doesn’t destroy but uplifts our being – our whole being, inherently connected with the elements around us. 


Let’s make sure the imprints we leave on the soil are marks of a mindful path to a better world, not alienation. 



You can buy ‘Walk: The Path to a Mindful Life’ here (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35960257-walk) as well as on other book sites.



Ellie is passionate about all things health and innovation - she wants to know what health might look like in a future, more equal system. She also looks for any opportunity to do something new in her own life - whether it's wild swimming, wild camping, or in this case, building the website for an online magazine and writing articles!