Why "Mindfulness" Is At Risk Of Becoming Just Another Buzzword

Written by David Gelles

As more and more people practice mindfulness in one way or another, or at least purport to, the very word itself is in danger of getting watered down. Simply applying the label of "mindfulness" now seems like enough to elevate otherwise commonplace products and services into the rarefied air of the vaguely spiritual, and potentially more marketable.

Weight Watchers is promoting mindful eating. Sodexo, a $15 billion provider of food service, has launched a line of healthful services called "Mindful." A company that makes "Mindful Mints" claims that its candy reduces stress. By slapping the word mindfulness on new products and services simply to make them fashionable, these corporations are making the word itself somewhat impotent.

"Mindfulness" is at risk of becoming the new "organic." Indeed, there's even a butchery called "Mindful Meats," run by conscientious folks, but not meditators. It seems as if the more popular mindfulness becomes, the less it means.

I'm sympathetic to the skeptics, who worry that a noble practice is being quickly corrupted by modern marketing. But having witnessed mindfulness in action for fifteen years, it is clear to me that rarely, if ever, does exposure to meditation make someone a worse person.

On balance, the folks who become more mindful tend to be happier, healthier and kinder. Nevertheless, it is worth addressing the critiques of mainstream mindfulness, if only to put them to rest.

One line of criticism holds that mindfulness, when divorced from the Buddhist tradition that spawned it, is incomplete and can actually be harmful. Simply using mindfulness as a technique to improve performance and make more money, the argument goes, is more about building up the ego than it is about breaking down the self.

It's a fear stoked by comments like the ones made by Arianna Huffington, who has been unabashed in her belief that mindfulness is an enormously practical tool. "There's nothing touchy-feely about increased profits," she said. "This is a tough economy. Stress reduction and mindfulness don't just make us happier and healthier, they're a proven competitive advantage for any business that wants one."

True as that may be, her comments are catnip for critics assailing the mingling of capitalism and contemplation. And for traditionalists, those are fighting words.

David Loy and Ron Purser, two professors of Buddhist studies, wrote a much-read article titled "Beyond McMindfulness" that has become a rallying cry for critics. It was published, of all places, on the Huffington Post.

"The rush to secularize and commodify mindfulness into a marketable technique may be leading to an unfortunate denaturing of this ancient practice, which was intended for far more than relieving a headache, reducing blood pressure, or helping executives become better focused and more productive," they said.

McMindfulness, as they see it, is a commercialized, sanitized and whitewashed version of the practice. Loy and Purser suggest that promoting mindfulness without emphasizing the ethical foundation of the practice is a Faustian bargain.

"Rather than applying mindfulness as a means to awaken individuals and organizations from the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion, it is usually being refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots," they said.

Practicing mindfulness, clearly, is no antidote to materialism. Even as we grow more attuned to our bodily sensations and emotional and mental landscapes, we don't automatically leave our vices behind. In fact, mindfulness at times can simply make some of our less savory mind states all the more vivid.

As we attend to whatever is happening, we find that where we had hoped there was love and compassion, there is instead lust and dissatisfaction. These are life's messy realities.

Excerpt from MINDFUL WORK by David Gelles. Copyright © 2015 by David Gelles. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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