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The Marketing of Mindfulness

Has capitalism corrupted mindfulness?

 Gustavo Frazao/Shutterstock
Source: Gustavo Frazao/Shutterstock

In the late 1970s, in the days before meditation became mindfulness, I had a heated discussion with my college advisor. I was young, enthusiastic, and sure that meditation would change the world. My advisor had grown up in India, and wasn’t at all starry-eyed.

“Noooo Suzan,” he said in his melodious accent. “Capitalism will corrupt meditation. Americans will turn it into conspicuous consumption.”

This conversation has stayed with me for almost 40 years. While he was prescient in some ways, I think the jury is out. How we will use it is still an open question.

We interpret mindfulness (and every new idea), through the lens of our education, our socialization, and the world that we know. We translate it, or appropriate it, into the language of our culture.

I continue to be fascinated by how we use and sell mindfulness. The following are some of my favorite headlines that provide a glimpse into the ways that we market mindfulness.

From Bloomberg News:

  1. “to-make-killing-on-wall-street-start-meditating.”
  • “Forget peace, love, and understanding. Like the samurai before them, today’s top traders are meditating to make a killing.”

From Wired:

  • “Mindfulness is the New Caffeine."

From the founder of Unplug:

  • “Where is the Drybar of Meditation? Where can you walk in feeling icky and walk out feeling great?”

From Huffington Post:

  • “Mindfulness for Mind-Blowing Sex.”

And if doesn't stop there. You can eat a "more mindful burger" and buy "mindful mayo" that is vegan, gluten free, dairy free and non-GMO. But, if meditation isn’t doing it for you, there's always “Lucky Buddha Enlightened Beer.”

So, this is the question. Are we going to use mindfulness to further our narcissistic preoccupations with money, status, and appearance? Do we stay on our high horse and pronounce that this is a corruption of the original teachings of the Buddha 2,600 years ago? Or do we say this is meeting people where they are?

After all these years, I still remain an optimist, as I know that mindfulness can be deeply transformational. When practiced over time the practices can loosen the grip of narcissism and greed, the grasping for power and domination, opening our hearts and minds to suffering and a wish to end it for all beings. As Jon Kabat-Zinn tells us, attention is the beginning of compassion and interconnection.

"Mindfulness is about love and loving life. When you cultivate this love, it gives you clarity and compassion for life, and your actions happen in accordance with that. All ethics and morality, and a sense of interconnectedness come out of the act of paying attention."

So, let’s keep a sense of humor and irony, but let’s not judge. As the Zen masters tell us, the journey of 10,000 miles begins with one step.

Psychologist Susan Pollak, MTS, Ed.D., co-author of the book Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy (Guilford Press) has been teaching and supervising at Harvard Medical School for over twenty years.