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Why is Spiritual Self-Help Speaking to the Neoliberal Subject


Text by Anile Tmava (University of Leipzig)


Art by Pablo Dohms



Fragmented, striving but never saturated, surmounted by intensity and uncertainty – the neoliberal subject is at the mercy of capitalist forces. This is where spiritual coaching and self-help agendas step into the picture. East Asian religious practices have seen a fast rise in US-American and European popular well-being culture. Why is spiritual self-help speaking to people in the so-called West at this place in time? This essay focuses on the notion of self in neoliberalism and westernized East Asian religions and finds that spiritual self-help gets caught up in contradictions. Because it is entangled in the neoliberal framework of striving and individualization, it fails at providing a consistent way out of postmodern overwhelm.



Introduction


East Asian religious practices have seen a fast rise in US-American and central-European popular well-being culture. Superstars share their daily chanting rituals on social media (PerthNow 2021), CEOs advocate for meditation to avoid burnout (National Geographic 2015) and religious figures like the Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh have become frequent guests in spiritual and self-improvement shows like those of Oprah Winfrey (O 2010). Calm, a unicorn meditation app has been valued at over 2 billion US-Dollars (Wilhelm and Mascarenhas 2020) and a Data Bridge Market Research analysis estimates the meditation market covering, among others, apps, workshops, and gear to reach a revenue of 20 billion $ by 2029 from 5 billion $ in 2022 (Data Bridge Market Research 2022). This is just a tiny part of the global wellness trend inspired by East Asian religious traditions. The Pilates and Yoga market alone with its mats, blocks, studios, and retreats is estimated to reach an incredible sum of 215 billion $ by 2025 (Allied Market Research 2019). East Asian traditions’ secular presentation focused on well-being practices in the so-called West seems to speak to the postmodern[1] globalized Western subject. This essay asks: Why is spiritual self-help speaking to people in the so-called West at this place in time? I will focus my argument on the notion of self in neoliberalism and East Asian religions, specifically (westernized) Buddhism.



The Self in Buddhism


Buddhism is a heterogeneous religion based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, a man born into aristocracy in the second half of the first millennium BCE (Rhys Davis 1931). Buddhists call a collection of arbitrary thoughts the “little self”, desires, habits, and sensations one attaches to creating an illusion of a fixed self. Holding on to the illusion of the self and its desires is seen as the cause of people’s suffering. (Conze 1953, 18; van Gordon et al. 2015) The Buddha said: "[…] a wrong view arises in him as follows: This, my Self, which speaks and feels, which experiences the fruits of good and bad actions now here and now there, this Self is permanent, stable, everlasting, unchanging, remaining the same forever and ever" (King 1991, 91 citing from the Majjhima Nikaya No. 2). Since the aggregates of the self are constantly changing (Oh 2021), Buddhism introduces detachment from the fixed self and the non-self as the way towards enlightenment (anātman in Sanskrit or anatta in pali) (Rhys Davis 1890).



The Neoliberal Self


Market liberalizations in the 1980s paved the way for neoliberalism to soak the global economic market, politics, and private life. They relied on privatization, self-governance, individualization, and responsibilization as stabilizers (Harvey 2005, 3), values that underly social and cultural norms shaping neoliberal subjectivity (Brown 2015, 71).


In The Corrosion of Character, Richard Sennett (1998) identifies the contemporary form of capitalism as one where the long-run perspective vanishes. Instead, people must constantly start new jobs in different locations, and live on short-term contracts and in flexible working conditions. This washes away individual narratives and hinders intersubjective relationships that could host collective narratives. The post-structural subject is “fluid, fragmented and decentered, formed in the slippages, tensions and fissures” (Burkitt 2008, 242).


Agger’s (2015) Speeding up Fast Capitalism argues that the acceleration of everyday life and the erosion of boundaries of private space since the 1980s resulted in a structural and ideological culture of instantiate – from fast food to speed reading. In turn, people’s lives are constantly accompanied by perceived time poverty (Gooding et al. 2008; Hochschild 1997) which is regulated by turning efficiency in work and life into a neoliberal ideal. Intensity, therefore, characterizes contemporary life inside and outside of work on a structural as well as ideological level (Williams 2011).


This day in age “[…] leaves us with a self that is full of endless possibilities but a bit unanchored” (Donner 2010, 225). In The saturated Self, Kenneth Gergen (1991) argues that because modern technology connects subjects with more and more diverse other people and experiences, the self is under constant reconstruction. Even if people try to find a true underlying self through introspection and analysis, contemporary life will constantly destabilize this construct. But fighting against these external impulses to preserve the self will also lead to overwhelm and mental ill-health (Hoffman et al. 2009).


Fragmented, striving but never saturated, and surmounted by intensity and uncertainty – the neoliberal subject is at the mercy of capitalist forces and translates economic values “[…] such as individualism, competitiveness, meritocracy, entrepreneurship, and protagonism” (Girotto 2018, 25) into subjective ones. In a traditional evolutionary manner, it must adapt by becoming “an entrepreneur of himself” (Foucault 2008, 226) maximizing its human capital, and monitoring itself to transform into a better, more efficient version (Foucault 1993; Dardot and Laval 2013). Neoliberalism requires a strong and autonomous (Walkerdine 2002) self that is “operational in difficult situations” (Dardot and Laval 2016, 339) since “the weight of complexity and competition” (Dardot and Laval 2016, 342) is thrown at the individual.



Third Generation Self-Help


This is where coaching and self-help agendas whose success was originally measured by how effectively they comfort and accompany individuals and ultimately adapt them to distressing circumstances step into the picture (Zanatta, Dias, and Saavedra Filho 2021).


Classic self-help focusing on productivity, wealth, and social success (think Dale Carnegie’s How to win friends and influence people and “neoliberal icon” (Peck 2008) Oprah Winfrey) still majorly contributes to neoliberalist subjectivity and profits from the overwhelming effect neoliberalism has on individuals. It highlights motivation, discipline, and productivity. Today most yoga and meditation influencers market emotional and physical well-being as a neoliberal commodity in McMindfulness[2] fashion (Purser 2019). These, I categorize as the second generation. In contrast to these two schools of thought, the new wave I am focusing on negates the neoliberal idiom of economic or social capital accumulation. Instead, representatives of the third generation[3] embody above all a form of spirituality that secularizes and adapts practices and concepts from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Daoism for a globalized Western audience. They retract their lives from modern pressures (mostly also cities, standard jobs, technology) and promote wellness through meditation, chanting mantras, and other spiritual practices. Speak of consciousness or enlightenment show close parallels to New Age thought and presentation. However, spiritual self-help influencers distance themselves from “New Age Guff” (Brand 2020) and argue that they ground their philosophy in various traditions whereas New Ageism seemed “rootless like it is being made up on the spot” (Brand 2020, 00:07-00:10). Oftentimes, they have spent some time in spiritual centers or monasteries in Southeast Asia before returning to their home country (mostly the US in my sample) or to digital nomad destinations like Southeast Asia (Brand 2016; Das 2019). Spiritual self-help gurus adapt notions like non-self to Western thinking, often mixing it with scientific evidence from neuroscience and psychology, and advocate for Buddhism-inspired detachment of the self or ego and its neoliberal wants.


It seems contradictory that spiritual self-help gurus utilize the classic capitalist mechanisms of personality branding and the attention economy on social media while presenting themselves as anti-system philosophy. Beyond the classical “witty capitalism even capitalizes on its own critique because the carton to make posters was bought in a profit-maximizing shop”-argument, I would like to draw analogies between neoliberal reality and core concepts of third-generation self-help to answer the questions: Why is third generation self-help popular in the so-called West? And can spiritual self-help live up to its promises?



Why is Third Generation Self-Help Popular in the So-called West?


It does so, because it speaks to the neoliberal subject’s disillusionments and hopes in its aims, contextual prerequisites, and means. Spiritual self-help emphasizes non-self as its fundamental goal and key to well-being. Neoliberal subjects, overwhelmed by their fragmented and intense lives, as illustrated above, are tired of constantly keeping up, reinventing, and seeing their identities destabilized by neoliberal speed and pressures. Hence, escaping this hamster wheel by rejecting the ever-failed ideal of a stable self is an attractive suggestion.


Additionally, third-generation self-help meets the neoliberal subject in the context it is situated in: an individualized and vulnerable place. Meditation, breathwork, and yoga as prominent means all enable the already a-social neoliberal self to turn inward. Claims like “you are not just the body/mind complex but a manifestation of the entire universe” (Das 2022) give isolation an additional socially interconnected twist. Moreover, as David Wainwright and Michael Calnan (2002, 159) highlight, people crave recognition for their suffering and are increasingly willing to “[…] relinquish sovereignty over their mental life […]” in search of “[…] existential security.” Spiritual influencers locate the responsibility for people’s dread (in part accurately) in “the system” or “the self”. Besides people’s individualization and wish for recognition, society’s cultivation of vulnerability observed in Frank Furedi’s (2004) Therapy Culture results in a need for guidance that is nowadays most often found in therapies and psycho-medicalization (Davies 2021; Wright 2011), but more self-sufficient and with Balinese rainforest ambiance as well as sexier corporate design and beautiful yoga-crafted bodies in spiritual self-help content.


Lastly, new self-help just like neoliberalism gives people something to work towards and places the tools to break free from societal pressures back into the individual’s hands. This “entrepreneurial non-self” shifts its priorities such that it now optimizes for enlightenment and detachment instead of wealth and status but by means and with a progress-centered approach it is familiar with.



Can Spiritual Self-Help Live up to its Promises?


As already hinted at, third-generation self-help gets caught up in contradictions. First, it employs corporate strategies to grab people’s attention and markets the “spiritual self” as a “commodity self” (Jackson and Hogg 2010) – a byproduct of goods and services: if you buy this deodorant, you will be fit and healthy, if you participate in this group meditation, you will be peaceful and centered. What is more, identity is marketed as a commodity – influencers, celebrities, businesspeople, politicians sell their image as an embodied brand and service. Third-wave self-help gurus who embody the identity of a spiritually enlightened person or most commonly spiritual seeker on social media platforms are no exception – as Marketing 101 teaches: you have to be relatable to draw people in (Atiq et al. 2022, 345). And yes, incorporating the surveillance power of collective online gazes (Plesa 2021)[4] translates into the spiritual influencers’ paycheck at the end of the month. Secondly, the no-self doctrine of Buddhism in its appropriated self-help form has ironically been turned into “Higher Self” ideas[5]. The interpretation used by self-help influencers is that of the “[…] highest spiritual expression of your being” (Seiler 2019), and thus easily interpreted as – yet again – an “aim to strive for” instead of a “non-aim” that escapes the economic pressures of private life under neoliberalism. This romanticized remix of non-self, higher self, and commodity self in spiritual self-help unmasks that third-generation spirituality is entangled in the neoliberal logic and can thus not offer sustainable detachment from the self and its consumerist desires. Thirdly, the focus on the non-self as a counterproposal to the failed stable self (or higher self as its seemingly finally reachable expression) attracts people who are alienated from themselves and others. Spiritual self-help – even if criticizing society for creating a competitive, individualized environment – encourages introspection and navel-gazing and offers little advice on building connections in real life. Cultivating introspection and meditation can be beneficial for social integration (Kang 2019; Fredrickson et al. 2019), and many spiritual influencers offer online communities to counterbalance the social isolation followers report experiencing after reaching spiritual enlightenment (Panday, Ervig 2017). However, this does not oppose neoliberal individualization but enhances it by providing an echo chamber of like-minded people and neglecting societal solidarity.


Spiritual self-help is a phenomenon that speaks to the postmodern subject because it caters to its overwhelm and loss of self not by giving tools for coping with the system (as other self-help traditions do) but by hoping to transcend it. However, because it is entangled in the neoliberal framework it makes responsible for people’s suffering and cannot untangle its ideal of non-self from neoliberal striving and individualization, it fails at providing a consistent way out of postmodern overwhelm.



Notes


[1] I use „postmodern“ in lack of a better term to express epistemic uncertainty, late capitalism, and the overarching rejection of stable identity, moral truth, and structuralist binaries. Acknowledging that globalized society has in part outgrown postmodernity, the here-used notion entails elements of post-postmodern, trans-postmodern, and metamodern thought. Leaving this notion vague reflects its meaning on an additional level.

[2] McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality is a book written by Ronald Purser that critiques the rise of mindfulness in the business context, as a banal kind of spirituality in line with capitalist principles that reinforces the neoliberal status quo by ignoring social transformation. McMindfulness refers to the way mindfulness practices have been co-opted by corporations and other institutions. (Purser 2019)

[3] the following characteristics were extracted by analyzing a number of Instagram accounts, e.g. vishuddhadas, russelbrand, spiritofellis, higherselfapp, sahdsimone.

[4] The paper analyzes the creation of subjectivity in neoliberalism, especially of social media influencers, in reference to the gaze of other people. It refers to Foucault who stresses the disciplinary effect of other people’s gaze and Sartre’s work on freedom and authenticity as embodied self-making which happens in dialogue with the gaze of others.

[5] The idea of a “Higher Self” has come up in different schools of thought like Anthroposophy (Daboo 2007), in Hinduism as the Spiritual Self Atman (Brahmaprana 2001), Higher Self Yoga founded by Nanette Hucknall (Canki 2020), and traditional Hawaiian Huna (Kumar 1999). In Europe and North America, it was coined in the late 19th century when religious authority declined, and moral selfhood needed to be reconceived (Tumber 2002).



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