Beyond McMindfulness: Throwing the Baby Out with the Bathwater

Elisha Goldstein on the commodification of mindfulness. 

Ever since mindfulness began spreading its wings in Western culture, there has been the fear that it would be stripped down, diluted and packaged for sale by greedy money-hoarding capitalists just wanting to make their bank accounts fatter. If this happened, inevitably it would just become a passing trend that the public would eventually grow weary of. The most cautionary piece about this was an article published on Huffington Post called Beyond McMindfulness. While the sentiment of commodifying mindfulness into a marketable technique is alive, and worth cautioning against, it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The entry of a secularized mindfulness into Western culture and even into the highest levels of business, medicine, mental health, education, sports and even politics has been a major source of transformation for thousands of people. With strong ties to its ancient roots, it was Jon Kabat-Zinn who skillfully managed to find a way to secularize it and gain acceptance in the world of science, medicine and mental health. By definition Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a product that people purchase that is very clearly packaged as a stress reduction program, but it maintains the important elements of the mindfulness tradition and almost subversively intends to create much greater transformation toward wise action, social harmony and compassion.

In fact, the most popular programs that have made their way into businesses are those that have been created by people with a good understanding of traditional mindfulness and are not “cloaked in an aura of care and humanity.” These programs include Mindfulness at Work®, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Search Inside Yourself (SIY) and the Mindful Leadership program led by Janice Marturano. Janice, who has had an extensive mindfulness practice, takes mindfulness top-down so the leaders can incorporate into their working lives—and hardly with the goal of controlling employees. A mindful leader sees past the urge to control pretty quickly. They know it doesn’t work.

Ultimately, a program has to be marketed to meet people where they are. The 15th century Indian poet Kabir said, “Wherever you are that’s the entry point.” For people to enter into the experience of mindfulness, it helps to package it for stress reduction, reducing depressive relapse, increasing productivity, increasing attentional focus, or lowering blood pressure. These allow people to be attracted to it and then have a genuinely beneficial experience that can guide them toward what matters.

Can you imagine if you walked into a corporation and said, “We have a program that integrates ancient practices from a Buddhist context that embeds moral and ethical guidelines for the benefit of all beings.” I don’t think you’d find many takers. But, rest assured, most of the leading programs out there are taught by people who hold these moral values in mind and integrate them in a way that can be understood and accepted.

An increasing number of studies point to the health benefits and even yes, the corporate benefits, of integrating mindfulness into the workplace. A study on the Mindfulness at Work® program conducted by Duke Integrative Medicine, Aetna (CEO Mark Bertolini happens to be a long-time meditator) and eMindful showed employees experienced stress reduction, increased productivity and lower medical costs. The MAW program integrates the important qualities of mindfulness , including awareness, self-compassion, compassion and the importance of community. I know this because I designed it, and the transformative accounts from employees who take it go far beyond stress reduction, and that’s heartwarming.

Ultimately, the reason mindfulness will not just become another trend is because too many people at this point are experiencing how it not only reduces stress, but gets you in touch with what matters. It’s intentionally not tied to the Buddhist context, so maybe we call it “Western mindfulness.” More and more people are being trained under a more secular perspective and with the intention of it being a benefit beyond the egoic self.

In fact, there’s now an entire magazine called Mindful that’s dedicated to these more secular perspectives and how it is changing the face of business, education, mental health, medicine, and all these various sectors of life. Take heart, the magazine was started by people who have a deep appreciation for mindfulness as a movement that is globally transformative.

A very popular conference called Wisdom 2.0 that is all probably the leading conference for mindfulness and business has a subtitle that says, “How do we live with greater awareness, wisdom and compassion in the digital age?” My sense is that the trend is not heading toward McMindfulness, but is deeper than that. The folks that are just packaging it for a buck are more likely going to be the ones whose voices get drowned out by the leading programs.

I appreciate the cautionary notes in Beyond McMindfulness since we need to be aware when someone is just using the term as a buzz word without ties to a deeper moral purpose. But I want to make sure it’s balanced out with the reality of how a secularization of mindfulness, while not explicitly tied to Buddhist principles, is a vital movement for individuals, businesses, medicine, mental health and education.

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

[Photo: Screenshot from “A Mindful Nation with Congressman Tim Ryan.”]

Adapted from Mindfulness and Psychotherapy.