Over the last decade mindfulness has become the defacto ritual of the aspirational self-improvement movement.
The internet is awash with advice on ways to earn more and stress less. And it’s never long before meditation is brought up as the magic pill to achieve both.
The emphatic evangelism of its practitioners has been so successful that there are now over 9.3 million Americans who meditate.
And whether its selling snake oil or serenity, there’s a billion dollar industry in peddling world peace.
But mindfulness’ journey from religious obscurity to the secret weapon of the super successful has much more to do with economics than it does with enlightenment.
From East to West
Mindfulness is essentially a bastardized adaptation of the kind of meditation practiced by Zen Buddhists. Which, itself, is a hybrid of the rituals and beliefs of Indian Mahayana Buddhism and Chinese Taoism.
The religion focuses on achieving enlightenment through meditation, and was allegedly brought to China during the 6th century by an Indian monk known as “The Blue Eyed Barbarian”. (He is also allegedly the patriarch of Shaolin Kungfu.)
Buddhism would first be introduced to Americans in the 1800s by way of Chinese migrants (a whopping total of 8,121 men and 8 women by 1858) who arrived in California in search of gold.
Even though San Francisco already had Buddhist temples as early as the 1850s, stigma against Asian Americans would keep meditation from spreading to America’s white masses until more than 100 years later.
And it never would have happened without the magic of white washing.
Meditation becomes mindfulness
The modern assertion that mindfulness is “based in neuroscience” is a fiction that plays an essential role in the popularization of the trend. Yes, neuroscience has validated the effectiveness of meditation as a tool for reducing stress and depression. But those studies haven’t resulted in any effect whatsoever on the way people meditate. Which is to say that neuroscience didn’t make meditation better — it just added “credibility” to something that Buddhists had already known for millennia.
But the shift in mindfulness’ presentation — from something oriental, eastern, and mythic, to something based in hard western science — would allow for the necessary conditions for its mass adoption more than two decades later.
But the change wasn’t one made out of malice or prejudice — it was made to help people.
The man responsible for this shift in perception and messaging is Jon Kabat-Zinn. In 1979, Kabat-Zinn introduced a course in meditation-based stress reduction at the University of Massachusetts. The course was meant to help people with chronic illness and cancer deal with the physical and mental strain of their ailments.
The course was meant to help people with chronic illness and cancer deal with pain by taking meditation techniques from Buddhism and giving them a new, more scientific, veneer. And the resultant shift in perception still endures to this day.
Despite its irrefutable benefits, meditation has always had to disguise itself as something else in order to be accepted by mainstream America.
In 1979 it was disguised as a way to promote pain relief.
Thirty years later it would be disguised as a way to promote profit.
Mindfulness in Silicon Valley
Chade Meng-Tan was the 107th employee of Google. And like all Google employees at the time, Meng was allowed to spend 20% of his time on solving whatever problem he wanted.
So he decided to solve world peace.
Thinking about the problem practically, Meng decided that an important condition for world peace would be to create the conditions for inner peace, inner happiness, and compassion on a global scale. And, being Buddhist, decided mediation was the best way he knew to do that.
Like Kabat-Zinn, Meng also came to the conclusion that mindfulness would need to…become a field of science, the same way medicine became a field of science” if it was going to catch on at Google. He didn’t have to change anything about the way people meditated — just the reason they would want to.
It wasn’t long before Meng found the perfect disguise for meditation in the emergent concept of emotional intelligence.
But, like Kabat-Zinn before him, Meng quickly realized that meditation wouldn’t catch on at Google until he could find the right positioning.
According to Meng, “Everybody knows this [emotional intelligence] thing is good for their career…and every company knows that if their people have EI, they’re gonna make a shitload of money.”
He also knew that helping companies “make a shitload of money” was the only way he’d have any hope of bringing world peace to the Silicon Valley.
And so he did. And it worked. The “Search Inside Yourself” course Meng started at Google went on to become the company’s most popular personal development course.
Corporate mindfulness was a sort of trojan horse — presented as a gift of capitalism on the outside and containing world peace on the inside.
That compromise is the only reason mindfulness became so popular in North America.
The role of modern mindfulness
But that compromise is one that mindfulness would never recover from — in a trend of appropriation that continues far beyond the realm of meditation’s initial intentions.
In fact, instead of reducing stress, modern mindfulness became a way of taking on even more of it. And once mindfulness became a tool for productivity it became valuable only insofar as it allowed people to handle more stress, work longer hours, make better decisions, and more money.
When Tim Ferriss reminds his podcast audience that 80% of the high performers he interviews have a daily meditation practice, it’s likely not because he’s suggesting a link between world peace and financial success. It’s probably because meditation is one of the only ways to deal with the 80 hour weeks necessary to achieve the kind of success that he’s talking about.
As a result the evolution of the mindfulness economy is a masterclass in marketing. Because those making money from mindfulness have the good fortune of selling a product whose audience is, quite literally, everyone.
But those who have been most successful in monetizing meditation have all been able to convince their customers of the same thing:
They’re not selling the magical cure to all problems. They’re selling the cure to your problem.
How to make money from mindfulness
A significant bump in the uptake of mindfulness happens every time somebody finds a way to market it to an audience that already exists.
The history of the monetization of mindfulness is really just a map of its various disguises.
In 1979 it was as a science-based method of stress reduction. In 2008 it was a transformative self-improvement course.
The next great major revolution would come with mindfulness’ arrival on the app store.
Guided meditation apps have seen an incredible amount of success in allowing their users to meditate anywhere at any time. The careful observer will notice that meditation, by its very nature, is easy to do anywhere at any time without the help of technology.
Never the less, the two biggest meditation apps, Headspace and Calm, each make more than $50 million in revenue each year through their guided meditation subscription services.
Mindfulness apps take advantage of an angle that’s already established — that meditation is a tool for productivity — and combine it with a fear inherent in new converts — that they’ll somehow do it wrong.
What meditation apps sell isn’t access to guided meditations. They sell the assurance that we are doing it correctly, or even doing it at all.
Mindfulness’ next act of adaptation would be aligning itself with the emergent trends of group workouts like yoga, SoulCycle, and Barry’s Bootcamp.
In person meditations, like these other wellness trends, offer a community in which to do something that somebody could just as easily do themselves at home (or at a much cheaper gym with similar equipment).
In the same way that mindfulness apps don’t see guided meditation, in person meditation studios don’t sell not the space or the opportunity to meditate — they sell the financial commitment to do it. It’s a form of pre commitment that acts as self extortion and keeps our actions in line with our desires. And it’s becoming a pretty lucrative industry.
A 30 minute guided meditation at a trendy studio like MNDFL in New York will run you $18. And they’re just one of more than 2,450 meditation centres in the U.S. that make a collective $659 in revenue selling guided meditation classes and memberships. That’s more than 3 times the size of the revenue for mindfulness apps, online courses, books and DVDs combined.
Perhaps the most genius of all of mindfulness’ disguises blew up by subverting the trend; instead of repackaging mindfulness as something else, the “adult coloring book” trend of 2015 did exactly the opposite — opting instead to repackage coloring as a kind of meditation.
Despite what their name suggests, adult coloring books are different to (non-adult) coloring books only in their intention and not in their content.
Johanna Basford capitalized on mindfulness’ built in marketing to create the biggest publishing trend of 2015. The books were so popular that the total number of colouring books sold went from 1 million to 12 million in the space of a year.
It even allegedly caused a global pencil shortage. And although the trend was short lived, Basford allegedly sold more than 21 million of them.
Whether or not coloring is actually an act of mindfulness is a matter of semantics more than anything else. Which is the beauty of mindfulness as a trend — almost anything that involves being away from a computer screen can quality.
But this fuzzy definition of mindfulness is being perceived as a dilution by an increasing number of practitioners. Mindfulness’ most effective mutation — its fluidity of form —is creating a counterculture amongst those who see the its chameleonism as a capitalist corruption.
Coming full circle
Mindfulness’ biggest money maker seems to suggest that more and more meditation enthusiasts are trying to turn away from “McMindfulness”. These people see the quest for mass adoption as a perversion of the practice’s purity. They, instead, are hoping to see a reversion in the exact thing that allowed for mindfulness’ popularity.
Of all the disguises that mindfulness would adopt, there’s one that Kabat-Zinn or Meng would likely never have predicted. Mindfulness finally came full circle when it became disguised as a way to promote spirituality.
Providing a form of spirituality for an increasingly secular America has, surprisingly, become the biggest source of income for the whole industry.
There’s a $562 billion industry of wellness tourism that brings mindfulness fans back to its more religious roots.
But this kind of fandom doesn’t come cheap. Popular retreats like Belmond’s Mindfulness River Cruises can cost thousands of dollars per person for seven nights and offers Tibetan yoga, all-day meditation sessions, healthy cuisine, and excursions to meditate in faraway places like Myanmar and the Himalayas.
American meditators are so obsessed with experiencing the most pure form of their pastime that they spent over $200 billion on mindfulness tourism in 2017.
But mindfulness tourism also gives us a clue about the kind of mentality that created the need for meditation in the first place. It’s no secret that we, as a society, have accelerated towards an insatiable and unsustainable desire to overachieve. Even our hobbies need to be taken to their logical extent — to be experienced to the Nth degree.
Anybody who’s has flirted with a meditation practice knows that even relaxation can become an intense competition of how good you are at doing it. And that’s the peril of modern meditation. What can be measured can be improved: How long do you meditate for? Guided or unguided? How relaxed does it make you feel?
Meditation promises us little more than an escape from a cage of our own creation. Of course the need for this instant brand of inner peace might be dramatic if we chose to prioritize it.
Instead we try to be the most successful, the most efficient, the most productive, and at the same time the most peaceful. We want the success. We want the overwork. We want the pain. But we also want the instant solution.
In this way, mindfulness provides us an opportunity for harmony. It’s just not the kind of harmony it was intended to invoke.
The fact is, mindfulness does work. There’s little question about that. The money is in telling people what it works for.
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