Op-ed: Capitalism and spirituality

April 18, 2018, 5:00 a.m.

On Thursday, April 19, 2018, the Business School will present a conversation between a prominent Indian spiritual teacher and a prominent leader from the financial world. The program announcement says, “Capitalism and Spirituality: A Conversation with Sadhguru and Jonathan Coslet . . . Join us for a conversation on leadership, purpose, and inner engineering with a capitalist and a yogi.”


What could they mean by this striking juxtaposition? Should capitalists be more spiritual—more serene, wise and balanced? Should spiritual teachers be more entrepreneurial—better at commodifying and marketing their wares? I offer this article, with a second part to follow, to encourage reflection on what is really going on in this conversation.


The idea that capitalists might become more spiritual seems promising on first glance. But I want to raise questions about the entwining of capitalism and global spiritual culture that might only occur to people on second or third glance, or that might not occur at all.


“Mindfulness” and “yoga” are keywords for forms of practice, originally transmitted from Asian cultures, that have become very popular and powerful in the U.S. and many other countries beyond Asia. They refer to meditation, physical practices and ways of being conscious in daily life. They can be potent in cultivating physical and mental health and well-being. They have been very important in the unfolding of my own life.


Of course these practices, and the teachings that accompany them, have taken many forms and gone through innumerable changes, not only in coming to modern Euro-America but also during the millennia in which they’ve existed in India, Tibet, China, Japan, and so on. Religion and (today’s more popular term) spirituality never exist in a vacuum, but become enmeshed in the social, cultural, economic, and political circumstances of their times and places.


Today mindfulness and yoga have been adopted in many settings, with a great variety of assumptions and goals. Participants may be seeking a road to health, peace of mind, attractiveness, success, or God. Big tech companies offer yoga classes and mindfulness workshops, as do other kinds of corporations, government agencies, and the military.


Some teachers have worked to free mindfulness and yoga from explicit religious and cultural associations, to make them secular and “universal,” so that all people can benefit regardless of their belief systems. Sometimes this has worked in a truly beneficial way. But sometimes the results have been troubling: loosed from their cultural contexts and historical traditions, the practices may also be stripped of ethical values and, yes, spiritual values.


One controversial area is precisely the relationship of global spirituality and global capitalism, with attendant political implications. Studies have shown that workers become happier, do their jobs better, and are more productive when they take up yoga, mindfulness, and meditation. Companies want their employees to be more productive, and employee health and happiness are good for company success. In another example, a research psychologist has received Department of Defense grants to train members of the armed forces in yoga and meditation. Again, their performance is enhanced, and they are happier, more at peace with themselves.


What is the problem? The problem is that, in the capitalist and military workplaces, seekers of health and inner peace are not asked to consider the ethics of what they are doing or the violent and oppressive systems in which their industries are entangled. All the emphasis is on individual happiness, self-acceptance and well-being. The capitalist/militarist system is not to be questioned. Responsibility for anxiety and other problems is placed on the individual. You need to meditate so you can learn to be calm and free of stress, to accept yourself, to be kind to yourself. You need to improve your individual well-being. You don’t need to put your secure and/or well-paying job at risk.


In Part 2, I will consider more specifically the event that will occur in Cemex Auditorium on Thursday during the noon hour. My hope is to encourage a more thoughtful and politically conscious approach to this public conversation between two powerful men.

Linda Hess ’64, Senior Lecturer Emerita Religious Studies

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