July 25, 2014
Mindfulness is no longer just a form of meditation—it’s a lifestyle that can be bought and sold. Is there an upside?
“Use mindfulness to overcome stress, anger, anxiety, depression and more,” counsels the cover of Mindfulness for Dummies ($24.99). If you find that suggestion compelling, perhaps you’ll want to investigate other books written or coauthored by Shamash Alidina. There’s the Mindfulness Workbook for Dummies ($19.99), which will help you experiment with different mindfulness techniques; Mindfulness at Work for Dummies ($24.99) promises mastery of your mind in the office; or maybe you’d prefer Relaxation for Dummies ($24.99). Short on time? There’s good news: the Kindle edition of Become More Mindful in a Day for Dummies is just $3.99. If you’re in London, or willing to work with Alidina online or via the phone, you can attend seminars, participate in retreats, take courses, and even be trained yourself as a mindfulness teacher.
Alidina is an example of a new figure on the economic landscape: the professional mindfulness instructor. Non-monks like Alidina who earn much or all of their income through teaching mindfulness in secular settings now number in the many hundreds, perhaps thousands, and can be found in every Western country. The existence of such instructors attests to the mass-marketing and commercial diversification of mindfulness, and to the fact that it has become a big business. According to federal data, Americans spend billions every year on mindfulness courses, books, and related products.
At first blush, mindfulness may seem like the ultimate anti-product, immune to the capitalist impulse. Indeed, the origin of mindfulness as a practice in Asian monastic communities seeking transcendence of the worldly makes it an unlikely candidate for adoption by non-Buddhist urban fashionistas, suburban hockey dads, and tech cognoscenti. But it’s never a good idea to bet against the ingenuity of late capitalism to find a way to make a buck off anything and everything. To make mindfulness saleable, it has been submitted to processes of recontextualization, adaptation, and creative application to meet the desires of new consumers.
Not surprisingly, the claimed benefits of mindfulness practice tend to mirror the anxieties of society at large. Feeling overwhelmed? Try Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World ($15.99). Kids running you ragged? Buy Mindful Parenting: Simple and Powerful Solutions for Raising Creative, Engaged, Happy Kids in Today’s Hectic World ($15.99). Got food issues? Pick up Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life ($15.99). Bored in the sack? Take a peek at The Joy of Mindful Sex: Be in the Moment and Enrich Your Lovemaking ($18.95). Relationship issues? Read Mindful Loving: 10 Practices for Creating Deeper Connections ($17). Difficulty at work? Maybe you need Inner Productivity: A Mindful Path to Efficiency and Enjoyment in Your Work ($14.95). And this is just the tip of the mindful iceberg.
In the transition from monastery to marketplace, there is no dearth of creative adaptations. If the seller doesn’t have particularly strong practice credentials, or is trying to reach an audience for whom Buddhism or religion in general may not be a selling point, he or she will downplay the Asian origins of the practice. Instead, the mindfulness professional will usually try to draw on secular sources of authority: Buy my book because I am a medical doctor and know what is best for your body (mindfulness); become my client because I am a counselor and know what your mind needs (mindfulness); follow my tips for managing your home life because I too am a parent and know what it takes to get your kids to eat their veggies (mindfulness); attend my seminar because I’m an expert consultant and know what your business needs to be competitive in a weak economy (mindfulness). The ability to present mindfulness as either spiritual or, in this case, secular, depending on circumstance, greatly extends the seller’s reach.
Beyond selling one’s expertise in mindfulness and touting the benefits of its practice, a further way to make money on mindfulness is by selling paraphernalia alleged to support or enhance meditation practice. At first, this mostly consisted of cushions and benches for use during extended periods of formal seated mindfulness meditation. These days, many mobile apps are available that draw on mindful activities. Some are electronic variations on earlier meditation aids, such as timers, meditation instructions, music designed to calm the mind, or collections of Buddhist quotations. For example, Mindfulness Bell from Spotlight Six Software ($0.99) sounds a chime at predetermined intervals. Others are more ambitious: Mindfulness Academy ($69.95) utilizes biofeedback via special Iom Active Feedback devices ($279.95) fitted onto the user’s fingertips to run a computer game that, according to its creators, will help the user achieve success and cultivate a balanced life.
None of these entrepreneurial adaptations should surprise us. Buddhism still exists today after 2,500 years because it has always adapted to new cultures, very often through new applications that meet the concerns of each society it encounters. We find that Buddhism spread across Asia through attempts to provide better funeral rituals to honor ancestors, enhanced methods of faith healing, and new strategies for avoiding a painful afterlife, to name just a few benefits sought by different cultures. New host cultures even developed their own Buddhist scriptures that described how to acquire supernatural protection for the ruling class and the country as a whole. Since the West and the modern world in general have very different desires and fears, Buddhism is once again repackaged to meet new circumstances—work stress, relationship issues, health problems, and other concerns. The quest to sell mindfulness as a universal panacea is then not a wholly crass enterprise: what would we expect compassionate Buddhist teachers to do other than seek ways to alleviate the stresses, low self-esteem, family conflicts, and other common afflictions of the people around them?
Since the value of “mindfulness,” with its associated concepts, has become recognized by a segment of the consumer populace, a new trend has developed. Now mindfulness is no longer simply being sold itself as a commodity; mindfulness is put to use selling other, possibly unrelated products. The hard work of previous promoters to convince us of mindfulness’s spiritual, medicinal, and practical value has associated mindfulness with good health, beauty, ecological awareness, peace of mind, and the power to get what you want. Sellers of new products can use the word “mindful” to cast the glow of such qualities upon their own goods and services.
For example, Mindful Minerals sells a line of beauty products that use ingredients collected from the Dead Sea. The company claims that their soaps ($6), creams ($30), and other offerings are naturally effective for treating skin conditions, lack preservatives, and are nondamaging to the environment. All well and good. But they don’t call themselves “Healthy Minerals” or “Eco Minerals.” Instead, they use the word “mindful” to imply these qualities. Likewise, Earth Balance sells a vegan, preservative-free mayonnaise that it labels Mindful Mayo ($4.99). Mindful Clothing sells hemp and organic fiber hoodies ($55), t-shirts ($25), and other comfy apparel. There’s no implication that buying their clothes makes you meditative; rather, “mindful” has become synonymous with being aware, with “awareness” understood in a particular way that supports progressive values, alternative lifestyles, environmentalism, and a left-leaning political orientation.
Consider Tranquilista: Mastering the Art of Enlightened Work and Mindful Play ($15.95). The author invites her young female readers to identify with her in the pursuit of “mindful extravagance”: “We’re forgoing spreadsheets and stodgy office politics to forge ahead with a new way of designing our lives as self-defined entrepreneurs who care about blending balance, bliss, and beauty.” This blend involves fashion, tech-savvy self-promotion, philanthropy, and meditation. Mindfulness is a key component in this mix, “an important trait to adorn yourself with at all times.” The result will be an empowered, self-branded woman who sparkles.
Such applications become possible because mindfulness is no longer just a form of meditation, it is a type of lifestyle. Mindfulness becomes the symbol of a way of moving through the world, a way of building a self-image even as an opposing identity is inevitably projected onto the unmindful masses.
Naturally, a mindful lifestyle requires appropriate accessories (yoga pants, hybrid vehicles, organic foods) that can be bought and sold, so the wheel of mindful commodities rolls on and on. Where will it all end? There are those who fear that the commercialization of mindfulness is a grave threat to the dharma, and others who feel that it is the way that Buddhism will ultimately penetrate and transform Western society from within. Others see little relation to Buddhism at all. Perhaps the popularized version of mindfulness is simply a fad that will fade with time, becoming a footnote in cultural history alongside Cabbage Patch dolls and twerking. But one thing remains certain: as long as there is money to be made from mindfulness, there will be someone willing to sell it.
Jeff Wilson, a Tricycle contributing editor, is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and East Asian Studies at Renison University College, University of Waterloo. His newest book, Mindful America: The Mutual Transformation of Buddhist Meditation and American Culture, is out from Oxford University Press in August.
Image: Gallery Stock