The (Mis)branding of Meditation

Aaron Schildkrout
Aug 26, 2013 · 6 min read

The mis-branding of meditation is one of the greatest cultural disappointments of the past 70 years. Consider it a cosmic error.

During the general cultural revolution taking place in the 1950s-70s, the West imported a series of practices, liturgies, teachings, and teachers from the East under the banner of consciousness expansion. This banner was colored and motivated by a slew of well-known factors:

  • the youthful embrace of simplified psychoanalytic theory
  • free love and an embrace of sexual freedom
  • a profound rejection of the smug happiness of picket-fence suburbia and a replacing interest in more radical experiences of emotional ecstasy
  • drugs
  • the adoption of Peace as an ideal that came from a combination of early childhood war trauma, later teenage war trauma, and being the world superpower
  • intellectual post-modernism — the (often idiotic) defiance of any vantage point as a privileged judge of truth or moral good or beauty — and the accompanying embrace of subjectivity as the most trusted, important (and somehow magically vindicated) vantage point
  • feminism and an embrace in the public discourse of supposedly “feminine” qualities like communicating and feeling
  • suburbia
  • the shift to a service economy
  • globalization
  • mass consumer culture and an according sense of alienation from nature
  • a general sense that equality was good (civil rights) but that Christianity and its embrace of the “meek” couldn’t quite be counted on to provide the ethical framework for its attainment

And so on. Big times.

So, the Gurus came. The Eastern texts got translated. The big sexual abuses in spiritual communities happened. The cults came and went. The 60s cooled into the seventies and shivered into the 80s. By the 90s and particularly the 2000's what we had left was basically New Age.

New Age is a popular philosophy — and like all popular philosophies it is a brand — and like all popular brands it works because people buy it. It’s the most successful marketing of meditation yet created in the West. It’s the way people have learned to sell meditation.

By New Age I include the entire genre of contemporary pseudo mystical practices and philosophies that, at their root, make non-scientific claims about the capacity for the mind to create physical reality in predictable, beneficent ways.

It’s a pre-modern belief in unproven causes of positive outcomes under the guise of a let’s-get-along moralism and a lexicon of healing and personal agency. It’s modern magic. In the Berkshires. Often with crystals in the windows. With a sitar playing in the background. When your yoga teacher starts talking about energy, I would guess in 95% of cases, you’re in a New Age yoga class. Your yoga teacher doesn’t even necessarily know this, but it’s the case.

Meditation practice has been pretty much entirely — except for a few small pockets such as certain American Buddhist communities — co-opted by New Age. I’m guessing that over 75% of the meditation books that are bought each year are profoundly colored (tainted?) by New Age magical philosophy. I haven’t researched this; it’s is a pure guess. I’d be overjoyed if I’m wrong.

My primary disappointment with the New Age co-opting of meditation is that it yields TERRIBLE meditation instructions — and just a generally misleading way of talking and thinking about meditation. Here are a few of the key errors:

Error 1. Meditation is the practice of stopping your mind from thinking.

This is very very sure, proven road to decades of failure. You can’t really willfully stop your mind from thinking. That’s what it does. It is a thinking machine. And it is categorically resistant to efforts to STOP it. The mind is one of the most beautiful things ever to exist in this universe, precisely because of its capacity to think. It’s true that very deep and fruitful meditation tends to happen when the mind becomes very still and one-pointed. But linking this to any effort to stop thinking is disastrous for the early meditator.

This error is derived directly from a kind of anti-mind sentiment rampant in New Age communities whose entire belief system rests on illogic and a subtle fear of thought. It is further exacerbated by the unconscious, tactical understanding that the modern yoga practitioner’s primary pain point is excessive thinking and anxiety: marketing pure and simple, independent of the actual nature and effects of the product.

Error 2. The goal of meditation is to become less stressed, more calm, etc.

Calmness has basically nothing to do with the actual goal of meditation. It’s one among many possible by-products of meditation. This is a branding tactic that arose organically to target upper middle class people — I think primarily women—who have the money to pay for expensive New Age retreats. The result is watered down meditation instructions that allow practitioners to spend years wafting in la-la land and not actually doing the work of inner emancipation.

Calmness is wonderful, but positing it as the root goal has dilapidating effects on the practice itself. Your goal is not to become calm. Your goal is truth, all-encompassing.

Error 3. Being nice is the most important thing.

There is a profoundly unexamined moralism that pervades almost every discussion of meditation. Usually this unspoken ethics posits that the moral goal and result of meditation is being really nice.

I’m not in any way against being nice, but this is only one among hundreds of ethical ends that meditation can yield. Again, this message has proven incredibly effective as a marketing tool for the primary consumers of meditation. Saying something like, “Meditation will make you strong enough to do the truly hard things that no one else wants to do but that you see must be done, regardless of reward or recognition,” just doesn’t quite land with the American yoga crowd the way kindness and (suburban?) pleasantness does.

This list could go on and on. Cultural transformations created an enormous market opportunity for selling meditation practice and yoga. New Age was the ideology that most effectively aligned with the pain-points of the market segment who had the cash, time, and propensity to buy this product. The result has been a dramatic (and disheartening) distortion of the practice of meditation.

Based purely on what meditation is, you could imagine it going another way. For example, meditation could be…punk. It actually is more punk in its nature than it is New Age. Alas, markets work their magic and turn things into answers to the problems of those with the money to buy them.

I do wonder though, whether branding is more powerful than this. That is, I wonder, if meditation was branded differently, would the soccer moms at their yoga classes be a bit more…punk? Could meditation be framed more deeply and more accurately and still sell like hot cakes? I don’t know.

The more I’ve pondered this, the more I think there’s actually a significant opportunity for this kind of re-branding right now. And by opportunity I mean both a business opportunity (isn’t suburbia getting just a little tired of New Age?) and a purer historical-philosophical opportunity.

I’m not in the meditation world enough to know if this is true, but based on where everything else is moving I imagine that an appeal to radical freedom might start resonating with consumers more in the near future than it has since the 60s.

In the meantime, if you’re meditating with the crazy idea that the goal is to stop your mind from thinking, get calm and act nicely, you should rethink things a bit and know that the opportunity for you on the cushion is a lot more radical, a lot more exciting, and a lot cooler than that. This is true above all if you’ve tried meditating and — amidst the terrible distortions of the practice propagated naively by meditation “teachers” everywhere—thought of yourself as “failing” at meditation.

Know this: it is not possible to fail at meditation.

Indeed, if you’re meditating regularly, you’re just as likely to become a puma as you are to become a relaxed, brainless emblem of friendliness.

And who doesn’t want to be a puma?

    Aaron Schildkrout

    Written by

    Entrepreneur, Product Thinker, and Writer. Currently Head of Growth Platform at Uber.

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