31. IBP: Ron Purser on neo-Liberal Mindfulness, neo-Liberal Buddhism


In this episode, Ron Purser comes on to the imperfect Buddha podcast to talk about neoliberalism and its impact on mindfulness, Buddhism, spirituality, and the experience of all these in the individual and the impact is greater then you likely believe. You are a neoliberal subject to some degree and the ethics and manner of practice of this insipid ideology has seeped into almost all contemporary spiritual practice. Such practice can be a site of resistance to the excesses of individualism, goal achievement, productivity, and self-serving interest. Such practices can reconnect us to a social and environmental vision and experience of ourselves in the world. But this is only possible if you become aware of how neoliberalism has participated in shaping your practice in certain ways. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek was not wrong when he stated that Buddhism, among all the world’s religions, is the greatest companion to neoliberalism, which would prefer you to keep focusing in and on yourself; “It’s up to you they say! You must do it alone, and if you fail well, it’s all your fault!” Does this sound familiar? It should do as it’s a major part of the neoliberal ethic.

Ron and I talk about a range of interesting topics that go beyond neoliberalism including finding the edge in practice and Time, Space & Knowledge. We cover McMindfulness, freedom, liberation free from the neoliberal ethic, and other exciting utopian topics. We talk about the alternatives to a practice informed by the near liberal ethic. So don’t panic, it’s not all nay-saying, we’ve got some solutions here too!

Ron was a great guest and I enjoyed our conversation together and I think you will too.

Don’t forget to leave comments at one of our groovy locations.

O’Connell Coaching: oconnellcoaching.com/
Post-Traditional Buddhism: posttraditionalbuddhism.com/

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You can find out more on this topic by reading the following articles which were both partially written by Ron.



Ron’s personal website: http://ronpurser.com


  1. Look to Pierre Bordieu regarding Neoliberalism, who warned about it’s corrosive effect back during the Reagan/Thatcher era.

    I think your intro paragraph is too reductive conflating Buddhism so generically with Neoliberalism as you expressed through Zizek’s commentary. If there is no “self” as the dharma so explicitly conveys, why would it (Buddhism) ” prefer you to keep focusing in and on yourself”?


  2. I find Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s explanation of the concept of ‘self’ in Buddhism quite useful. It is a tool to be used when appropriate and dropped when appropriate. The main goal is lessening of suffering (or eradication of suffering, which to me personally seems both unrealistic and, in fact, undesirable).

    I agree with the analysis of this article and the podcast episode that Buddhism, certainly western Buddhism, tends to focus too much on inner change. If you look at the founding of the monastic sangha, it is a clear recognition of the importance of outer conditions for inner change. So why don’t people see that the same should go for lay society? There are certain social structures that are more conducive to the diminishing of suffering, and the cultivation of skillful traits in its members, than others.

    The question remains, without a belief in a system of afterlives, rewards, punishments etc, what can motivate people to care about future generations or people on the other side of the world, or strangers in their own country? Why should we care? I see yourself and Glenn doing a lot of interesting critique, but the idea of why we should actually give a damn doesn’t really seem to be discussed much. This seems to be a remnant of Christian and humanist ideas that people are reluctant to critique, or seem to take for granted as important.

    Really enjoying the podcasts by the way, thanks a lot,



    • Hi Gavin,
      Thank you for the kind words: we’re glad you enjoy our imperfect podcast. The question you raise is of course an essential and important one, but I’m not sure I have so much to say in response to it. Thinking and typing out loud, I would agree that the Christian/Humanist compulsion towards salvation or betterment have immense value yet are problematic in a world view of immanence. At the theoretical level I don’t have a nice, well-thought out answer to the seeming conflict between the desire for progress and improvement, and the embracing of our immediacy and its inherent flaws and frustrations. I mix and match the two if I’m completely honest and it seems to function relatively well. In practical terms, I find the tension between them to be fascinating and ripe ground for contemplative practice. I find it useful to start by separating out the material of the question;

      Why should we care? Why shouldn’t we? Why should I care? Why shouldn’t I?
      Why do we care? Why don’t we? Why do I care? Why don’t I? What does it mean to care ethically? What does it mean to care experientially? …and so on.

      There are multiple answers to each question, many of them capable of being received unreflexively. I think that ultimately we cannot avoid the fact that our ethical choices are either made for us by the society we are born into, or the religious bent of our family, etc, or has to become a negotiation with the world at hand for those who are willing to look, see and feel the world beyond received norms: Those who have ears and all that.

      When it comes to general ethics, I tend to think that a likely replacement for the Judeo-Christio-Islamic obsession with transcendence will not be a Buddhist ethics, but an evolved ecological one; perhaps a modern Gaian realism that will emerge as climate change ramps up and our resources begin to really run out to the point where a critical mass of the wealthy begin to suffer enough and run out of places to hide themselves and their wealth. It’s likely that such an ethics will be unified with some techno-digital world-view of interwoven, interdependence, and be uncomfortably leaning towards immanence.

      The question becomes though, would such an ethics merely be an aberration of the pre-existing underlying ethics, or something significantly diverse and capable of causing a break from the growth compulsion our politics and economics, and therefore selves, are caught up in? The one in which we Westerners still hide our big dirty secret in which we were handed the Earth by God to do with as we please with unlimited abundance.

      So far, emergent digital age ethics seem to be reproducing the adolescent desire to live forever, transcend our physical limitations, and responsibility to the wider communities of beings, animate and inanimate. It’s still soaked in the myths of the fully, autonomous subject as well. The hyper-rich silicon valley types can’t hide this fact and their fantasies of preserving consciousness are reflective of an underlying commitment to Judeo-Christian mythology.

      I do believe that our only hope for survival as a species is in the recognition of the finitude of all forms and that this is non-negotiable and yet here we are still fighting against the Earth’s indifference to our silly plans whilst contemplating a back up planet.

      As for giving a damn? Well, that’s a pedagogical questions as much as an ethical one and part of the work of the podcast is to educate. Glenn shares the same intent and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we are both educators. I think that the material here, on the podcast and at the SNB site, is all suited to ridding our fellow Western Buddhists and non- of the myths that are holding back a full-blooded engagement with the big challenges of our time and that includes questions of consciousness, ethics, hermeneutics, and so on. Without exiting the sufficiency bubble, no new creative change is produced, it’s just circularity all the way down. That’s why I’ve always considered Glenn’s work to be so vital.

      It makes me think of how many of our brightest minds end up in finance and banking because that’s where the money’s at. Such a waste of potential. It’s the same with contemplatives, and Buddhists. So often their potential for radical insight, compassionate action, and so in is trapped in the banality of basic Buddhist teachings, individual mysticism, Mindfulness mania, and the maintenance of the status quo. It’s a shame.

      Some of us are at least attempting to make them aware of the problems, shake things up a little, open up new dharma doors perhaps and remind the wider spiritual community of what’s missing.


      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Matthew,

    Thanks a lot for this very thoughtful reply. Those questions (‘Why should we care? Why shouldn’t we?’ etc) are well-framed, and I like the switches between ‘I’ and ‘we’. I will ponder them over the next few days. Indeed, a lot of our problem in the modern age comes through wanting to find ready-made answers to questions rather than doing the hard work of thinking them afresh for ourselves. This unwillingness to engage, to think and feel deeply, is symptomatic of the very problem we are discussing here. The superficiality of our processing of information mirrors and reinforces the superficiality of our social relationships. So perhaps this is truly the place to begin.

    One thing that is sure is that we need to find a way to make that care genuine. We don’t have to think too much about being nice to people in our families or local circles, It comes naturally. We feel concern at a gut level. How do we somehow extend this to a more global scope? I suppose there is a place here for traditional practices like metta. George Monbiot is someone who has a lot of interesting things to say on these topics, also Charles Eisenstein, whose book The Ascent of Humanity I’ve just started reading.

    Anyway, keep shaking things up over there, some of us definitely appreciate it!


    • I concur wholeheartedly with the first paragraph. As for the second, I can’t help but want to play devil’s advocate and this is partly due to my disavowal of absolutes. I would suggest that many of us have most difficulty caring for those who are closest to us: It unfortunately does not always come at all naturally. I hear the whisper of the notion of underlying goodness in this paragraph too, and a recall to natural man and basic goodness. I hear Zizek hovering around and the whole lineage of those humans who have seen how much darkness, selfishness and stupidity we humans happily indulge in and that much of that might be defined as ‘natural’ too, depending on your bent. The Christians remind us of this, as do the real Nazis, Fascists.

      Interestingly, George Monbiot has a counterpart in the figure of Paul Kingsnorth. He set up the Dark Mountain project and I imagine you might have heard of him. They share similar concerns but Paul has seen mostly darkness when looking into the environment, human connections, and our future, and his work is aimed at preparing for the ecocide, not in terms of survivalists and bunkering down, but in finding community and artistic expression for navigating the changes we are increasingly facing and the existential dread that emerges when we pay attention to how much our actions have damaged, raped and pillaged. His project is aimed at caring for those who’ve seen how bad our situation is and how much worse it’s likely going to get.

      Caring involves choices, choosing who and what not to care for, as much as anything, and both Paul and George have made choices that have plotted real courses in the world. I do appreciate George and his attempts to raise certain public questions. I also value his optimism and environmental campaigning. I think he is also a product of his upbringing and the fantasies of the class he was born into and that he has chosen to care in ways that are meaningful for him and those who resonate with his vision of the world.

      I think ‘metta’ practices are potentially very powerful and very interesting when explored creatively and as realistically as possible so as to avoid becoming mere wishful thinking and transcendent. I haven’t heard of Charles but in taking a look, I can’t help but think he’s fallen for the same romantic vision of humans as many others. I love such visions but they always feel incomplete and self-serving.

      Thanks for commenting.


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