The Commodification of Mindfulness



In the last six months mindfulness has appeared on the cover of Time magazine, Scientific American, and an article in the New Yorker. Broadcast networks have shown specials on mindfulness.  The proliferation of the term includes Weight Watchers, Narcotics Anonymous, parenting groups, neuroscience research, an article in the Huffington Post titled Mindfulness for Mind-Blowing Sex, as well as a Reuter’s article, Meditation and the Art of Investment.  A new generation of apps promises to take the edge off our mental distress.

The commercialization of a centuries old Buddhist meditation practice has devolved into slogans that sound as if they were lifted from embroidered wall hangings.

When we introduced meditation into organizations over thirty years ago you could see the images of the Beatles or bearded gurus in flowing robes come to mind.  Since we were already asking clients to stand, move together, and inhabit their bodies the idea of meditation was one speed bump too many.  This recent interest however, backed by research, has now made the idea of meditation more palpable and easier to speak about.

This is a good thing.  Mindfulness has much to offer in becoming more fully human. Yet it’s contemporary presentation as something akin to a wonder drug that eases stress, insomnia, anxiety, sexual problems and a host of other ailments has whitewashed its depth.

Reading between the lines the message is: do this so you won’t be distracted by stress so you can get on with your life, which misses the point of how do you generate stress, what are the personal and systemic elements that produce stress?  The corporate narrative of mindfulness -use this technique to manage the load so you can get back to work- fits neatly into the capitalistic pursuit of profit.  What is lost is the notion of Path as a Way of Awakening, and what it becomes is a technique so you can work harder and longer.

Mindfulness derives from a sacred tradition that is based in long-term practice, teacher, transmission, discipline, lineage, liberation and interdependence, shared within a community of practitioners.  This doesn’t mean you need to become a monk, but rather it’s a sincere undertaking of a practice that can help you embody pragmatic wisdom, grounded compassion, and skillful action. When this view is lost mindfulness becomes only a technique, divorced from its ancient teaching of our interconnectedness with all of life it will simply become another trend that will ultimately fade out of fashion.  Attend a multi-day, silent meditation retreat for yourself and you can directly experience what I’m saying.

Buddha, the Awakened One, said that the first Noble Truth is all is suffering.  If we are truly mindful we will see why he said that.  Oops, that’s not a good selling point for the quick fix types. He also said there is freedom from suffering.  That’s also attained through mindfulness.  This path of waking up is a difficult, but noble enterprise; it’s more than a commodity.  It’s watching the rose unfold.

Take it Easy But Take it

Richard Strozzi-Heckler
Strozzi Institute