The Good Beneath the Hype

Juicy stories sell. But when people oversell mindfulness, its true value may get overlooked.

sirikorn_t/Dollar Photo Club

Wow, this mindfulness stuff is pretty scary. Having spent the past week reading more than 30 critiques of the mindfulness movement from the last few years, I’m thinking the whole thing seems pretty dodgy. It’s hype, smoke, and mirrors. It’s the decline of a great tradition. It’s a secret takeover of our minds. It’s ineffective. It’s flaky. It’s a wet blanket. It’s narcissistic. And apparently a whole lot of people are making huge piles of money from it.

Then, I remembered how cyclical things are. Once something reaches the point that it’s celebrated on the cover of Time, look out. The knives are being sharpened in the back room. The biting criticism, naysaying, and debunking will soon follow. One of the great things about the media is that we can rely on it to part the curtains on the hype and let us examine what’s really going on.

But along with that comes the lust to tell a negative story, because readers will relish it. It has ever been so. Dante’s Inferno—his description of hell and the nasty characters therein—is an enduring classic. No one reads his companion volume on heaven. It’s boring. The characters are happy and satisfied.

The media can be harsh. Ask any celebrity. The word implies being celebrated, but what gets celebrated will one day be brought low. Writing about pro golf’s new golden boy, Jordan Speith, sports writer Brendan Porath admitted that the praise and hyperbole heaped on him now will eventually “hit a saturation point and there will be backlash, as there always is. That’s how this machine works.”

Mindfulness has been hyped and overpromoted. And that naturally draws criticism, which should be carefully considered. But under all the hooplah, people are getting the help they need.

Another phenomenon is at play when an innovation starts to spread in organizations. The technology consulting firm Gartner Inc. calls it “the hype cycle.” It begins with excitement about the new idea or technique, and then as more and more people advocate for it, it’s oversold, and it reaches a “peak of inflated expectations.” Now a number of people are disillusioned: the shiny new thing didn’t instantly solve every problem and remove all pain. A long period follows when the innovation gradually spreads and is implemented in more places. People take on the hard task of making it work and proving that it does work.

Mindfulness is now taught and practiced in many arenas: hospitals, schools, military bases, police stations, offices, and locker rooms, to name just a few. That’s a tremendously exciting innovation. It emerged not because of a few hypesters or hucksters, but because of a lot of people who care. It’s spreading because it’s helping people deal with stress, tension, and pain. It’s sharpening their focus and effectiveness. And they’re leading more fulfilling lives as a result.

Those who train others to work with their minds take on a big responsibility, so naturally there are good intelligent questions to be asked and addressed. Mindful will keep working to unearth and clarify those questions, because mind training deserves to be a health and well-being “craze” of genuine long-lasting value. It touches your heart to hear a veteran talk about getting her life back because of mindfulness practice or a teacher say that it reminded him of why he wanted to teach children in the first place.

Along with such genuine stories of enduring benefit, there will always be hype and counter-hype. As it swirls around, it’s good to take time to consider what might be true and what might be misinformed. In the October 2015 issue of Mindful, we take a closer look at some of the myths about mindfulness that have emerged as it has its moment as the shiny new thing.