Judith Hertog interviews Carolyn Chen, sociologist at University of California, Berkeley, about her book Work Pray Code in Guernica. Chen spent five years studying the impact of American Buddhism on corporate America, particularly in Silicon Valley as a differentiating founder principle and an appropriative work benefit through meditation sessions and retreats. The audiobook is now in my backlog, as the interview covers a number of interesting topics around the secularization of Buddhism for American audiences, the appropriation of mindfulness meditation as a form of productivity hacking in corporate America, and the co-opting of physical community by corporate actors looking to re-center employees' social capital and even "faith communities" in the workplace.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with using the workplace as one part of one's identity, purpose, and community - if you are employed to solve problems with good people around you, and you enjoy the process of solving those problems with those people, you should be able to feel good about it - pushing mindfulness meditation in particular as just another benefit your employer offers has pernicious implications. One particular pull-quote I found compelling from the interview:
At some companies I observed, they would teach loving-kindness, Metta meditation, which is a traditional Buddhist meditation to promote compassion. Participants would be told: “Imagine yourself spreading your love to your family. And now imagine a circle of love that you enlarge to include all of your workplace, and then all of your community, and then all of the world…” So, first of all, you might ask, what does any of this have to do with work? But when you associate these practices with your company because they happen at work, you begin to associate this sense of wellbeing and spirituality with your workplace. The social and spiritual binding that happens when you practice meditation together — this is what gets people to develop a sense of belonging and identification with their company. It has nothing to do with compassion anymore.
And this isn't just a trend in Silicon Valley, nor does it have to have explicit associations with mindfulness, meditation, or American Buddhism. Companies often tout their culture as a differentiator for why someone should want to work for them; and while culture certainly has a huge impact on how - and how well - you work, many companies are very self-serious about the stories they tell about their work culture, in a way that Chen directly compares to organized religion:
And this happens not just in Silicon Valley. Almost all Fortune 500 companies are now organizing themselves to function as religious organizations. They have an origin story, a mission, ethics, and a particular set of practices, and many of them have a charismatic leader, which are all basic components of organized religion. I would say that this is strategic. They have learned that managing meaning is a central labor practice to compete for highly skilled workers in a knowledge economy.
I look forward to getting to Work Pray Code in my audiobook backlog to read more about Chen's work on this subject. There's a lot more background in the interview as well on what "American Buddhism" means in contrast to Buddhism as practiced in Asia, I recommend checking it out.