‘AmaZen’ is the Religion for Our Time
“Come to me,” the Booth beckons, “all who labor with full bladders and crippling anxiety, and I will give you rest, for my aura is unproblematic and my vibes are chill. But, only like 10 minutes of rest. After all, there are quotas to fill, and other members of the PrimeFamily are waiting their turn.”
Amazon’s official Twitter account recently posted a video showcasing the “AmaZen” Mindful Practice Room recently installed at a fulfillment center in Etna, Ohio. AmaZen creator Leila Brown described the phonebooth-sized kiosk as “a place that’s quiet that people could go and focus on their mental and emotional wellbeing” by accessing “a library of mental health and mindful practices.” I would instead describe it as an abominable heresy, a rank offense that stinks in the nostrils of God and man.
I’m not alone in my reaction. Responses were almost uniformly negative, and Amazon quickly deleted the tweet. Left-leaning criticism focused especially on Amazon’s anti-union stance, accusing the tech giant of hypocrisy. “You think you need a union,” one Twitter user snarked, “but really your 4th and 7th chakras are blocked.”
Amazon’s appeal to a watered-down Zen Buddhist spirituality is the most disturbing aspect of this dystopian misadventure. It’s the ultimate “triumph of the therapeutic,” of the idea that religion is primarily about personal comfort and being nice. The ascetic tradition of authentic Zen has no place here. This DIY spiritual path was meant to liberate the individual from oppressive clerical hierarchies and outdated cosmic dramas. Instead, it has been weaponized against the individual’s very personhood. Freedom from constraints turns out to be enslavement to the appetites, and to those best able to satisfy them.
An Orthodox Christian icon corner wouldn’t serve Amazon’s purposes nearly as well as a coffin-sized Zen garden. The icon shows the viewer the way to salvation and exhorts her to follow it to the end no matter how much pain it brings. The garden tells her that there is no loftier goal than the avoidance of suffering. Self-care becomes a sacrament.
Marx called religion the “opiate of the masses,” but G.K. Chesterton insisted he had it all wrong, at least when it came to Christianity. “On this system,” Chesterton wrote, “one could fight all the forces of existence without deserting the flag of existence. One could be at peace with the universe and yet be at war with the world. St. George could still fight the dragon, however big the monster bulked in the cosmos.” Far from producing complacent drones duped by promises of pie in the sky, Christianity provided a transcendent vision of goodness, truth, and human nature by which all earthly institutions can be judged.
The Mindful Practice Room offers none of that. (Of course, it couldn’t without provoking lawsuits, but that’s just one more reason why it’s a bad idea to get your spirituality from the same place you go for new episodes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and recurring shipments of paper towels.) AmaZen provides no basis for challenging the powers and principalities except one’s own discomfort, which—hey presto!—is the very problem the booth is designed to solve. “Thy Kingdom come” gives way to “may my anxiety subside.” Zen Buddhism even encourages the performance of repetitive tasks as a spiritual practice! Marx (and Amazon) could hardly have imagined a better opiate.
In World War Two, the Japanese military used “the self-denying egolessness of Zen” to brainwash soldiers into committing atrocities. Amazon isn’t asking its workers to shoot anyone, but the consumerist spirituality it’s pushing seems perfectly designed to keep its workers (and customers) complacent while it shapes them to suit its own ends, even if that means destroying their humanity in the process.
Make no mistake: Big Tech is in the process of creating a new kind of man and has been for quite some time. Perhaps, as Paul Kingsnorth suggested in his short story “The Basilisk,” they even have unseen help.
Every moment we spend scrolling aimlessly through our phones, we are being commodified, disincarnated, and dehumanized. As St. Athanasius proclaimed and C.S. Lewis expounded, when we refuse to be who we were made to be—to orient ourselves toward the transcendent Good—the result is not the radical freedom we expect. Instead, we sink back into the brute physicality of nature. We become malleable lab rats in the hands of our technocratic overlords.
One hopes that, if lab animals were self-harming, failing to breed, and developing neuroses at the same rates as contemporary Westerners, we’d be humane enough to terminate the experiment. And yet, we continue to give smartphones to 12-year-olds, even as they’re driven to porn addiction and suicide in record numbers. Few are willing to even entertain the possibility that there’s something wrong with our society. Viral balloon artist Stephen Szczerba suggests that everyone should be in therapy. Comedian Seth Rogen compares his perma-stoned lifestyle to wearing shoes: “we use them to adapt to reality… They make our journey more comfortable.” The question of whether this reality is worth adapting to hardly ever comes up.
Zen-derived mindfulness techniques have some use as therapy (military veterans with PTSD report good results), but they can be used to obscure the real issue. The proper response to suffering in Stalin’s gulags was not increased access to mental health resources. It was the abolition of the camps. Sadly, we lack the Christian resolve Chesterton once praised. We prefer to treat the symptoms and deny the disease.
AmaZen is the perfect religion for our age. Its purpose is not to lead adherents out to see Plato’s Sun and by it to behold the true nature of everything else, but to make existence in the cave more bearable. In Christianity, the problems are the flesh, the world, and the devil, all of which can be fought. In AmaZen, to quote Captain Jack Sparrow, “[t]he problem is not the problem; the problem is your attitude about the problem.” Nothing a little self-care won’t fix. Meditate for 10 minutes and order a new bath bomb. You deserve it, queen. It’ll arrive in two days or less, and you wouldn’t dream of throwing rocks at the Amazon delivery drone.
Christianity, spurred by its unwavering belief in the Imago Dei and the Incarnation, broke with every civilization that had come before by abolishing slavery worldwide. AmaZen, with its prioritization of what Walker Percy called “the guru’s search within” over “the pilgrim’s search outside himself,” may be an early step toward resurrecting it, in a form less openly cruel but even more insidious. If you want to survive the days that are coming and are now here with your humanity intact, here’s my advice: root yourself in a dogmatic, revealed, hierarchical, communitarian religion that makes real demands of you—and hold on for dear life.
Grayson Quay is a Young Voices contributor based in Arlington, VA. His work has been published in The American Conservative, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and the Spectator World.