Monday, July 20, 2015

Mind over matter

I read a Salon article, "Mindfulness is a Capitalist Grift: How Faux Enlightenment Maintains our Status Quo" today, finding it pretty relevant to the experiences of lots of students around my age who are interning at "cool" companies this summer. Whether at small startups in Silicon Valley or chic non-profits that attract millennials, sprawling tech companies or booming media organizations, buzzwords that encourage us to take breaks, be mindful, and improve our physical and mental health dust the air more thickly than pollen in the springtime.

There's nothing wrong with encouraging your employees to be healthy and happy. If you want to set up a nap room in your office (I'm looking at you, Arianna Huffington) or buy your workers free subscriptions to meditation sites, power to you. But what is obnoxious about the motivations of some workplace improvements is that they are diametrically opposed to their origins. These Buddhist-inspired (and now heavily secularized) ideas of meditation and mindfulness are supposed to encourage greater productivity, which in turn implies the production and consumption of more material possessions. Yet Siddhartha Gautama considered the suffering he saw in the world and walked away from his material possessions. Mindfulness is not supposed to be a pathway to profit.

It's as if you're supposed to be mindful, but not too mindful, lest you start asking questions that make you uncomfortable (and maybe unproductive), like "Why am I working so hard on something I don't even believe in?" "Do I really need all this s**t I own?" "Am I causing harm to others by participating in, and benefitting from, an unfair system?"

I think about the last one a lot, less because of my current place in the system and more because of what I will potentially do after school. When people asked me as a kid, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I never answered anything that would make me even remotely rich. I said things like "teacher," "writer," "principal," and the inexplicable "philanthropist," without explaining how I would accrue the savings to get there. Sometimes I wonder if this would have been different if my parents had loved their jobs. If I'd seen my dad spouting eloquent soliloquies about the beauty of computer science or dreams of raises and promotions, maybe then I would've wanted to work 9 to 5 in a corner office somewhere, and try to work my way up a ladder with top rungs so distant it seemed to stretch to the heavens.

This is what I actually saw: my dad working hard to stay afloat, not climb a ladder. I saw him stressing out before big deadlines, leaving early in the morning and staying at work late at night. Around midnight, I'd wake up to the sound of the floors creaking and see him in the hallway, bags under his eyes and laptop in hand. My sister and I joked about growing up at Microsoft because of all the time we spent there -- we'd go there for a "quick stop" so my dad could "check on something," quick stops that would turn into several-hour-long detours. Detours, for my sister and I, through labyrinthine hallways dark as candle-lit restaurants. Detours, for my dad, through uninspiring lines of code.

It gave me an odd sense of guilt to slowly realize, as a kid, that my parents didn't do the things they loved, much as they told me to follow my dreams. People say "I wish I had never been born!" in a hateful way in arguments with their parents a lot; the only times I've thought it seriously, it's when I'm thinking about what my parents wanted to be when they were around my age. My mom thought about studying journalism when she came to the United States for college, but she took a job that conflicted with the hours of the journalism classes for the sake of financial stability. And sometimes I still see the journalist who could have been, in the moments when she draws out stories from just about anyone--asking a question like "What kind of void in your life are you trying to fill with buying things?" to a taxi driver (who'd been telling her about his debt problems) we'd known for all of one hour, or starting conversations with waiters in vegan restaurants and piano movers in Washington Square Park alike.

And there were a lot of times when I wished my dad hadn't made his (very sane) decision to work in software when he could have schlepped around the country living the tormented life of a postdoctoral student looking for teaching positions. It would have been really hard, but much easier without kids along. And maybe then he could look out at auditoriums of bright-eyed students, and explain his doctoral thesis on semi-classical dynamical models of vibrational spectra to people much smarter than his teenage daughter who never took high school physics.

Instead of fulfilling work, they got really sweet health insurance that bought me more pairs of glasses than I've ever needed. Shelves upon shelves of books. Apartments in Europe for a month-long stint abroad. Organic produce from Whole Foods. My education.

"I'm only able to consider doing things I love because you guys did things you hated," I blurted to my mom.

"That's how it works," my mom said. "One generation does something they don't like, you do something you like. If you don't do something you like, I would think we failed."

"So you're saying if I was a millionaire because of...uhhh...I dunno, working in advertising at Coca-Cola, you would think you failed?"

"Well, I wouldn't brag about it," my mom said, eyebrows raised.

People have asked me, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" since I was a kid, but now I actually think seriously about the answer, and my uncertainty. Perhaps this uncertainty is born from the clash between the values of self-reliance and self-interest all my high school American lit reading inculcated me with, and the values of self-sacrifice for collective good (presuming a definition of "collective" that equals family and "good" that equals financial stability, anyway) my parents' actions and my extended family have exemplified.

If I choose to fulfill my dreams, perhaps at the cost of financial stability, am I selfish?

If I choose to sacrifice the things I want to do in the name of greater financial stability, am I passionless?

In the end, I'm reminded of mindfulness because too often the way that meditation and other techniques for R&R function in the corporate world is to serve as distractions from a discomforting reality -- churning out products at the cost of our environment or children laboring in factories, or advertising goods that people don't really need, or creating apps to help people send self-destructing 10-sec photos (much as I may wear those shirts, love some of those ads, or appreciate Snapchat) is not really affecting the world that positively. And I think from the moment we're born, we want to affect the world. We toddle around and try to put everything in our mouths and on some level, we want to think, I matter, I can change things. That hope should never go away. Being "mindful" in the name of increasing productivity merely puts a Band-Aid on our feelings of insignificance; instead, let's work toward a world where our goals are larger than increasing profits, and our opportunities to matter are more plentiful than our opportunities to forget that once, we cared about mattering.


  1. I love this. So Joyce:

    "Well, I wouldn't brag about it," my mom said, eyebrows raised.

    Excellent post, Adora.

  2. I enjoyed reading this. I do think a lot about the sacrifices are parents made to get us where we are. I'm an international student in the US and my brother is going to become one next year, and my dad has taken a loan to support the both of us studying here - when he could easily have told us to just study in India because that would have been easier to afford. He knew that I wanted the flexibility and advantages (double majoring in two subjects that have no relation to each other, having the freedom to change or add a major) that studying in India would never have given me; and that I would never have pushed for it if he hadn't encouraged it. He's ambitious for the both of us (me and my brother), and is willing to work extremely hard so that we can achieve our dreams. My dad doesn't hate his job - he can be quite a workaholic, and I know he enjoys it for the most part - but he probably would have been able to work a little less hard if he didn't have to pay the astronomical tuition US colleges charge. My dad's love and ambition for us is something I'm grateful for everyday.

  3. i really enjoyed reading this ! thanks for writing! hope to read more of your writings.!

  4. Anonymous2:11 AM

    Would you mind saying what is Mindfulness?

  5. Anonymous7:19 PM

    Adora. I admire this post (especially the dissection of "figuring out" what to do: passion vs livelihood as connected to parental sacrifice). Although. . . I wonder if the whole idea of mindfulness is to some degree thrown under the bus. You make an eloquent point (I think) when you connect the ridiculousness of using mindfulness to increase productivity. Yet too, perhaps mindfulness is more subversive and influential than suspected by these "Guru CEOs". What if in all the rush for productivity the more mindful workers unite to enact contemplative and transformative changes in not only themselves and their choices in their personal lives but also within the workplace. Perhaps this overflows into the corporate culture. Perhaps the CEOs themselves get downright meditative themselves and begin thinking with more than the lizard-trauma-spaces of their brain. What if. .. what if, this was the Buddha's plan all along? Love your piece. Love that it brings forth thought. Thank you.