THE other morning, I woke up and brewed a cup of Mindful Lotus tea ($6 for 20 bags). On the subway, I loaded the Headspace app on my iPhone and followed a guided mindfulness exercise ($13 a month for premium content). Later in the day, I dropped by Mndfl, a meditation studio in Greenwich Village ($20 for a 30-minute class).
These days it seems as if everyone is peddling mindfulness, a popular form of meditation. The Golden State Warriors, the Seattle Seahawks and the Boston Red Sox are now practicing mindfulness in the locker room. After Google began teaching the practice to its employees, stuffy companies like McKinsey and BlackRock started doing the same.
Consumer offerings are prolific, too. There are more than two dozen mindfulness apps for smartphones, some offering $400 lifetime subscriptions. The Great Courses has two mindfulness packages, each with a couple of dozen DVDs for $250. For an enterprising contemplative, it’s never been easier to make a buck.
On the face of it, that should be good news all around. After all, where’s the harm in having folks slow down, get in touch with their feelings and be kind? As a sporadic meditator myself, I know firsthand that mindfulness can relieve stress, improve focus and promote well-being. And during this charged election season, couldn’t we all use a bit more peace, love and understanding?
But with so many cashing in on the meditation craze, it’s hard not to wonder whether something essential is being lost. If mindfulness can be bought as easily as a pair of Lululemon yoga pants, can it truly be a transformative practice that eases the troubled mind? It’s a question as slippery as a Zen koan.
There’s no doubt that as mindfulness has gone mainstream, plenty of people have used the technique to achieve peace of mind, greater self-awareness, perhaps even more compassion. Yet at the same time, a race to the bottom seems to be underway.
Increasingly, mindfulness is being packaged as a one-minute reprieve, an interlude between checking Instagram and starting the next episode of “House of Cards.” One company proclaims it has found the “minimum effective dose” of meditation that will change your life. On Amazon, you can pick up “One-Minute Mindfulness: 50 Simple Ways to Find Peace, Clarity, and New Possibilities in a Stressed-Out World.” Dubious courses promise to help people “master mindfulness” in a few weeks.
IBISWorld, a research company, estimates that meditation-related businesses in the United States last year generated $984 million in revenue. With so many mindful goods and services for sale, it can be easy to forget that mindfulness is a quality of being, not a piece of merchandise.
“It’s not enough to purchase the right product to be mindful,” said Dan Harris, an ABC news anchor who chronicled his grudging embrace of meditation in a book, “10 Percent Happier.” “Mindfulness is a practice, and it’s worth doing.”
That is, you can’t simply buy mindfulness. In its historical context, mindfulness is just one aspect of a lifelong journey to become more accepting, less judgmental and kinder to oneself and others. Even in its modern incarnation, mindfulness is best understood as a skill, one acquired through hours of sometimes uncomfortable contemplation.
Alas, that may be asking too much in an age of crash diets and instant abs.
When considering the fate of mindfulness in the American marketplace, it’s instructive to look at the evolution of yoga. Like mindfulness, yoga has its roots in the spiritual traditions of India, and was practiced for decades by enthusiasts before it went mainstream. But as yoga grew more popular, it mutated in strange ways. Today there is naked yoga, paddleboard yoga, and doga — that is, yoga done while holding your dog. Yoga also became a multibillion-dollar business, spawning apparel companies like Lululemon, a vast cottage industry of studios and teacher trainings, and a kaleidoscope of yogi bric-a-brac.
Kaitlin Quistgaard chronicled yoga’s often bizarre ascendance as the former editor of Yoga Journal. She said that while purists sometimes wrung their hands about its commercialization, their lamentations were in vain. Let loose in the American marketplace, yoga took on a life of its own. Now, she said, the same thing is happening with mindfulness.
“No one gets to decide who can sell mindfulness, or use mindfulness to sell a product,” said Ms. Quistgaard.
Though this may result in less signal and more noise, it doesn’t mean mindfulness can’t still be beneficial. Yoga may have changed over the years, but plenty of authentic teachers and ashrams can still be found. The same dynamic will most likely play out with mindfulness, too. Strange variations on mindfulness will proliferate, while pockets of traditional teachings endure.
Even seemingly superficial interventions can be useful, or at least benign. Joe Burton, chief executive of Whil, which offers a popular meditation app, is adamant that just because mindfulness is streaming online at ever-higher price points, that doesn’t make it ineffective or inauthentic. “No one can come do our training being a greedy, selfish jerk and expect to become a better greedy, selfish jerk,” he said.
He’s probably right. In recent years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of meditators, and many entrepreneurs behind Mindfulness Inc. To be sure, some seemed more interested in cruising the blossoming meditation social circuit than in actually doing the hard work of self-reflection.
More often than not, however, the people I know who take time to meditate — carefully observing thoughts, emotions and sensations — are sincere in their aspirations to become less stressed, more accepting and at least a little happier. Continue reading >>